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Hoeksema on Kuyper's baptismal theology

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In his work "Believers and their Seed", Herman Hoeksema dedicates a sustained examination of Abraham Kuyper's doctrine of presumptive regeneration, according to which visible members of the church, with particular reference to baptized infants and small children, are regarded as members of God's elect unless and until they give evidence to the contrary. In other words, we assume our baptized infants and children are elect unless or until they give evidence to the contrary by openly rejecting the faith. Hoeksema notes that Kuyper's motivations for teaching this have to do with a particular answer given as to why we are to baptize infants. Indeed, for Kuyper, the justification for baptizing infants lies in his doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Apart from such a view, Kuyper thinks, baptism cannot be legitimately described as a sacrament at all. That is, apart from belief in its spiritual efficacy, there is no meaningful sense in which it is a sacrament. Kuyper articulates this in terms of an act of water baptism on Earth and an act of administration of salvific benefits in heaven.

But what is the nature of this "subjective grace" of which Kuyper speaks, and of which he sees those baptized as the recipients? Hoeksema notes that Kuyper makes a threefold distinction:

1) The "root-grace" of regeneration - this is not given us in baptism but is instead, its reality is rather presupposed in the one baptized.

2) The grace of sanctification experienced in our thoughts andn wills.

3) That aspect of sanctification which manifests itself in our behavior.

Hoeksema notes that Kuyper sees a special, unique sort of grace conferred on the person in baptism. Interestingly enough, Kuyper sees the grace conferred on the individual in baptism as a horizontal-spiritual grace. He cites 1 Cor. 12:13 and Eph. 4:5, and argues that these passages speak of a kind of horizontal grace wrought in baptism, according to which you are grafted into the body of Christ and have true, spiritual fellowship with His other members. Hoeksema quotes Kuyper:

It is not sufficient, therefore, that grace is merely wrought in you personally. Only then does grace come to its own, when it does not merely affect you individually, but when it at the same time sets you in connection with the body to which you organically belong. A man dwelling on an uninhabited island indeed is alive; nevertheless he has no life, simply because man is adapted to live in organic association with others and to see this come to expression in his life. Now thus it is also with the new man in Christ Jesus. Also for him it is not sufficient that he personally has life; no, this new life must be granted to him also in organic connection with the mystical body of Christ. Otherwise he may be alive indeed, but he does not enjoy living. If it is to be well with him, there must, therefore, be a bond, a connection, established between his life and the life of that mystical body. Only when this takes place, and is become a matter of his consciousness, has the fullness of the new life truly dawned upon him. This, after all, is the peculiar characteristic of the life of the child of God, that he does not possess that life all by himself, but that he partakes of all the life of the entire body, and that he has a part in all that God has bestowed upon that body. Not all alone, but along with all the saints must he know and acknowledge the love of Christ(Kuyper).

Hoeksema notes that Kuyper is careful not to argue that baptism effects regeneration. He does not believe in baptismal regeneration, which is the initiation of a purely vertical spiritual relationship of an individual with God. Rather, the grace conferred in baptism effects a purely horizontal-spiritual grace according to which the individual comes into communion with other memberes of the covenant body.

Of what significance is this for Hoeksema's look at Kuyper's doctrine of presumptive regeneration? Well, since infants are to be baptized, and to therefore, according to Kuyper, have a special horizontal grace conferred upon them, it is precisely on the ground of the antecedent vertical grace of generation that such a horizontal grace is possible. Therefore, infants who are brought up in the church such that they fellowship with other members of the grace are presupposed to possess this grace unless and until they give evidence otherwise. Hoeksema rightly rejects Kuyper's view on the ground that it makes distinctions which the Bible does not itself make. Regeneration causes us to enjoy both vertical fellowship with Christ and horizontal fellowship with his members. He furthermore rightly points out that it is based on abstract, philosophical reasoning incomprehensible to the ordinary person. Indeed, for Hoeksema, baptism symbolizes much more than mere horizontal fellowship with the members of Christ's body. It symbolizes the sum total of God's plan of salvation for humanity. Hoeksema is furthermore uncomfortable with Kuyper's sacramentalism on the ground that it grants baptism a special power which Christ is presumably unable to confer apart from it. This, Hoeksema rightly notes, puts us back on the road to Rome. Indeed, Kuyper believes that baptism effectually works this horizontal grace to commune with the church. For Kuyper, therefore, we must suppose that our infants are regenerate when we baptize them.

With respect for presumptive regeneration, Kuyper notes that God is able to regenerate anyone of any age. Furthermore, he denies that the Church must possess complete certainty of the regeneration of participants of the visible church. It is obviously true that we can never hope to obtain certainty of the regeneration of those in the visible church. But this does mean that we are committed to Kuyper's particular theology of baptismal regeneration?

Indeed, Hoeksema acknowledges that this view dates from the 17th century. He specifically cites that theologians such as "M. Noordtzij, D.K; Wielenga, H. Bavinck, and P. Biesterveld", argue that this is the standard understanding of the relation of infant baptism to infant salvation from the 17th century up to the present. Hoeksema acknowledges that Calvin himself may have been a representative of this position, when he writes in his Institutes that “are baptized into future repentance and faith; for though these graces have not yet been formed in them, the seeds of both are nevertheless implanted in their hearts by the secret operation of the Spirit.” Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear whether or not Calvin is advocating precisely this position. Of course, Calvin acknowledges that not all such children will come to faith, as he likewise writes in his Institutes, “They contend that this passage leaves not the least room for the baptism of infants, who are not capable of that in which the truth of baptism is here stated to consist. But they frequently fall into this error, of maintaining that the thing signified should always precede the sign.”

Hoeksema next comments on the writing of Ursinus, noting that at first blush, Ursinus, seems to have taught something like presumptive regeneration, but makes the point that it is clear that Ursinus is speaking specifically of elect infants, and that this obviously does not apply to the reprobate:

Zacharias Ursinus writes in his “Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism,” p. 370: “. . . for infants do believe after their manner, or according to the condition of their age; they have an inclination to faith. Faith is in infants potentially and by inclination, although not actually as in adults. For, as infants born of ungodly parents who are without the church, have no actual wickedness, but only an inclination thereto, so those who are born of godly parents have no actual holiness, but only an inclination to it; not according to nature, but according to the grace of the covenant. And still further: infants have the Holy Ghost, and are regenerated by Him. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb, and Jeremiah is said to have been sanctified before he came out of the womb. (Luke 1: 15; Jer. 1:5) If infants now have the Holy Ghost, he certainly works in them regeneration, good inclinations, new desires, and such other things as are necessary for their salvation, or he at least supplies them with every thing that is requisite for their baptism.” Let us note that also here it is not said that we must presuppose of all children from their very birth that they are regenerated. On the contrary, the decisive language which Ursinus employs shows that he has in mind only the elect children of the covenant(Hoeksema)

Hoeksema cites many other Reformed theological writings as well, but points out that these writers did not speak of presumptive regeneration, but "of the certainty of faith." In other words, these Reformed theologians were referring specifically to elect children who actually possessed faith.

...it is..very clear that they have in view only the former, and therefore mean to speak of the elect seed of the church. Of the elect children they confess that, being born in the covenant, they are also at once regenerated. And this is certainly altogether different than the assertion that we must presuppose concerning all the children of the covenant, without distinction, that they are regenerated from infancy(Hoeksema).

He is very careful, however, to point out that nowhere do the Reformed confessions teach either presumptive regeneration nor baptismal regeneration:

It should also not escape our notice that in the confessions of the Reformed churches there is not a trace of such a view to be found. Nowhere is it asserted that baptism is administered to infants on the ground of the presupposition that all the children, head for head, born in the covenant, are regenerated. It is not even maintained that the elect children of the covenant are already regenerated at birth. We read in Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Are infants also to be baptized? Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.” And in Article 34 of the Netherland Confession we read concerning the baptism of little children as follows: “ . . . therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, whom we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children. And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which Christ hath done for them,” etc. There is in these expressions of our confession certainly no semblance of a doctrine of presupposed regeneration of all children born in the covenant. The confessions do not even express themselves as to whether the elect children are regenerated from childhood(Hoeksema).

Hoeksema notes that the Baptism Form, although it thanks God effusively for His salvation of the children of the covenant, does not teach presumptive regeneration, but must instead be understood within the context of what Hoeksema refers to as the "organic" conception of the Church; a concept whose articulation is beyond the scope of this article.

The Conclusions of Utrecht actually explicitly repudiate such a notion, as Hoeksema points out. It is “is less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their supposed regeneration", according to Utrecht. He also points out that the Conclusions of Utrecht teach “that the thesis that every elect child is already regenerated before baptism cannot be proved either from Scripture or from the confession, inasmuch as God fulfills His promise according to His sovereign power at His own time, whether it be before, during, or after baptism.” While Hoeksema concedes that such negative statements do not definitively set forth a positive theology of what it means to be a covenant child, such statements hardly seem compatible with the presumptive regeneration of Kuyper. Contrary to Kuyper's presumptive regeneration, Hoeksema notes the distinction scripture makes between the physical and spiritual seed of believers:

Now it is our conviction that we cannot arrive at a of correct view of the seed of the covenant as long as we hesitate to accept the clear teaching of the Word of God that it is not all Israel that is called Israel, that not all the children born in the historical manifestation of God’s covenant on earth are also actually children of the promise, but that the line of election and reprobation also cuts right through the visible manifestation of the covenant and makes separation, always and again separating between Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to the promise. Or, to put it negatively, we shall never be able to hit upon a pure, Scriptural conception of this truth as long as we try to hold fast to the view which wants to presuppose that all children born in the covenant in its external form are regenerated(Hoeksema).

Hoeksema makes the helpful point that there is some sense in which all must rely upon a 'presumption' to some degree. Baptists themselves presume that those who confess faith also possess it. They do not assume this infallibly, of course, but they do charitably give those who confess Christ and seem to walk in His ways the benefit of the doubt. The difference between Kuyper and Baptists, is that the Baptist presumption is based on confession whereas the Kuyperian presumption is based on being born to believers within the visible church.

Ultimately, however, Hoeksema rejects Kuyper's doctrine of presumptive regeneration on the grounds that the presumption is simply unwarranted. Obviously plenty of children born in the church will grow up to be unbelievers. How is it, then, that we can presume what we know for a fact we do not know? Does this not mean that we are to presume something whose grounds we know to be totally unwarranted? Hoeksema repudiates this as a psychological impossibility.

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