Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Are Roman Catholics Baptized?

 What Does That Say about the Roman Church?

In the mid-80s, serving as minister of a small church in a small town, I with the concurrence of the Session baptized two adults upon profession of faith. One was of a former Roman Catholic. The other was of a former “Jesus name only” Pentecostal. If I were faced with baptizing those two persons again, I would do one but not the other.

I would baptize the Pentecostal. It still seems to me that the application of water intentionally not using the Trinitarian formula by a church that rejects Nicene Christianity is not a baptism.

I would not baptize the Roman Catholic. I was following the Southern Presbyterian fathers (e.g. Thornwell) not the Northern fathers (e.g. Hodge). I have come to believe that those who accepted Roman baptism were probably right.

My own denomination, which in its early years studied the matter of Roman Catholic baptism, could not come to a conclusion. It accepted and passed down to Sessions both the majority and minority reports. On Roman baptisms we adhere to a “local option” which, with regard to such an important subject as whether or not one has ever been baptized, says something about the view we have of ourselves as a branch of the Church.

But the question I want to raise is this: If we accept Roman Catholic baptism, then what does that say about our view of the status of the Roman Catholic Church. Is it a branch of the Church (not accepting its claim that it is the only branch) or not?

It seems to me it will not do to say, “Roman baptism is Trinitarian so we accept it, though the Roman Church is not a true Church and though salvation is not to be found in the Roman Church except by accident.” Not every Trinitarian application of water is a baptism. If Joe Christian bears witness to Christ to a non-baptized person who then prays to God for acceptance by Christ’s work, and then Joe Christian takes that person home and “baptizes” him in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit at the kitchen faucet or in the backyard swimming pool, a baptism has not occurred. Baptism is an act of the Church in the church.

Baptism is “not to be administered, in any case, by any private person, but by a minister of Christ, called to be the steward of the mysteries of God” (PCA Directory for Worship 56-1) Both sacraments “put a visible difference between those that belong to the church, and the rest of the world” (WCF XXVII:I). Baptism in particular is “for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church” (WCF XXVIII:I).

It is true that we disagree strongly with Rome about the nature and effects of baptism. (I would not want to be controversial, of course, but we disagree rather strongly also with Baptists with regard to the subjects, nature, and effects of baptism. I do not mean here to imply the doctrinal equivalence of the overall errors of the Roman Church and the Baptist Church.) But, if we accept Roman Catholic baptism, given who we believe are to administer the sacrament and what we believe about the relationship of baptism to one’s status in the visible church, can we say that Rome is not a true church?

A church can hold to serious errors and even heretical doctrines, and yet be the church, and its members, though ignorant and mistaken, can yet be saved. Where is the dividing line? Is it Nicaea or what? If it is not Nicaea, then can we hold that Roman Catholic baptism is baptism? And, if we accept Roman Catholic baptism, then can we say that Rome is not a true church?

I have noted before that quite a few Reformed Christians referr to J.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy as Christian writers. And to G.K. Chesterton as a defender of historic orthodoxy. Roman Catholics all. Are they what is claimed for them by Reformed Protestants?

I do not intend to declare a view, but to raise what for me is a serious question.

Gone to heaven?



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