Friday, October 16, 2009

Emergency Baptisms

In our Calvin's Institutes discussion last night, book IV, chapter 15, we had a bit of a spirited discussion on the issue of "emergency baptisms" which is discussed in sections 20-22. Here Calvin brings up the practice of midwives performing baptism in the case of the immanent death of a newborn. Though acknowledging that the practice reaches back into the ancient church, Calvin rejects it as unbiblical:
For many ages past and almost from the beginning of the church, it was a
custom for laymen to baptize those in danger of death if a minister was
not present at the time. I do not see, however, how this can be
defended with sound reasoning

In defending his position, Calvin points to concerns that others had with the practice. For instance, he notes that Tertullian and Epiphanius were flat opposed to it, that St. Augustine had "doubts" about it, and that the Council of Carthage "decreed without exception....that they should not presume to baptize at all." Foundationally, Calvin has 4 reasons why he opposes the practice:
1) it confuses gender roles (4.15.21)
2) it overturns ecclesiastical order: it is wrong for private individuals to
assume the administration of baptism; for this as well as the serving of the
Supper is a function of the ecclesiastical ministry. For Christ did not
command women, or men of every sort, to baptize, but gave this command
to those whom he had appointed apostles
. (4.15.20)
3) divine adoption of covenant children is based upon promise, not merely on the external administration of the sacrament: God declares that he
adopts our babies as his own before they are born, when he promises that
he will be our God and the God of our descendants after us
[Genesis 17:7]. Their salvation is embraced in this word. No one
will dare be so insolent toward God as to deny that his promise of itself
suffices for its effect
4) Zipporah's circumcision of Moses' son provides no warrant for the practice: Seeing her son in danger, she complained and murmured, and anally
cast his foreskin on the ground, and so reviled her husband that he also at
the same time became angry against God. In short, it is plain that this
whole matter arose from her impetuosity, because she clamored against
God and her husband that she was compelled to shed her son’s blood.
Besides, even if she had behaved herself well in everything else, it is
inexcusable temerity that she circumcised her son in the presence of her
husband — not any private individual, but Moses, the chief prophet of
God, than whom no greater ever arose in Israel. This was no more
permitted to her than for women today to baptize in the presence of a

So that is Calvin's view on emergency baptisms. Just in case this topic comes up over coffee, you will at least know what Calvin had to say about it.


Timothy said...


I never heard of "emergency baptisms."


danielj said...

So that is Calvin's view on emergency baptisms. Just in case this topic comes up over coffee, you will at least know what Calvin had to say about it.


Susan said...

John, I know of a couple who requested their pastor and session to come to the neonatal ICU to baptize their preemie baby who was to undergo surgery with a good chance she would not survive. The pastor and session discussed it and decided to do the baptism because, although the entire congregation was not present, at least some of the congregation, including the baby's parents and a couple of elders, would be present. The pastor himself performed the baptism. The parents acknowledged that the sign itself alone did not effect God's covenant promise, but that it was effected by His Holy Spirit. Would Calvin allow something like this?

John Sawtelle said...

Great question, and I should have addressed that in my post. Yes, Calvin would have approved of that 100%. When we administer the sacraments in a hospital setting we have at least an elder or 2 with us in order to have a representation of the body of Christ with us. Your pastor's action was right on the money.

What Calvin would not approve of is an individual member of the congregation taking it into his or her hands to baptize in an emergency situation simply because they thought the child might die before the pastor and some elder could make it out to do the baptism.

Calvin's comments on this topic are a timely reminder that both polity and theology go hand in hand even in the case of emergencies.

lee n. field said...

"I never heard of 'emergency baptisms.'"

I think it's a Roman Catholic thing.

I've got a little book in my library, an R.C. manual of devotions and this and that, dating from the 1940s. At the very beginning, page 0, right under the Nihil Obstat and Imprmatur, is a paragraph on "Lay Baptism". "Any person, whether man, woman or child, may baptize an infant, in case of danger of death--Thus:..."

Vic said...

Not to stray off topic but while we're on the topic of baptism, please run by me the argument for why Reformed churches consider baptism from a Roman Catholic priest as valid and not the baptism of say a Calvary Chapel.

John Sawtelle said...

Well there is plenty of discussion about this in Reformed circles. I would say for the most part Reformed churches do accept baptisms from Calvary Chapel. The only reason why a church would not is if they were not sure if the "pastor" was actually ordained. If he was ordained we would probably accept it if it was done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.