Old Princeton: Charles Hodge—Don’t Throw Out the Roman Catholic’s Baptism with its Baptism Water

In the context of conforming more consistently to the Westminster Confession of Faith, our Session revisited re-baptism while studying sections 27:3 and 28:6-7, especially pondering these closing words: “The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.”

This led us to consider how to countenance the baptism of a potential Roman Catholic convert, and Charles Hodge’s important work on the subject became our chief guide in learning not to throw out the baptism with the baptism water.

During the May 1845 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church the subject of not acknowledging Roman Catholic baptisms as valid and thus the need to re-baptize Catholic converts was raised.  In his article “The General Assembly” for the Princeton Review of that year, Dr. Hodge lamented this novel change in his, “The Validity of Romish Baptism”[1]:

The question as to the validity of baptism as administered by a Roman Catholic priest was brought before the Assembly, by an overture from the Presbytery of Ohio, … In favour of returning a negative answer to the question, the votes were 169, against 8, non liquet 6. We feel almost overwhelmed by such a vote … What stern necessity has induced the Assembly to pronounce Calvin, Luther, and all the men of that generation, as well as thousands who with no other than Romish baptism have since been received into the Protestant Churches, to have lived and died unbaptized?[2]

Hodge appeals to the fact that the French (see the French Confession), Genevan (Reformed), and Dutch churches had the same practice, as did the Church of England.

While history is of great importance for Hodge, he also turns to logic.  His argument begins by defining what baptism is with Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 94, and then offers three points of reference for a litmus test: first, baptism must be by washing with water; second, it must be Trinitarian; and third, its intent must be that of understanding it to mean the signifying, sealing and applying of Christ and His benefits.  He points out that Roman Catholic baptism meets all three criteria, and writes: “The error of the Romanists concerning the absolute necessity and uniform efficacy (in the case of infants) of baptism, is very great, but it cannot invalidate the nature of the ordinance.”[3]

Next, he addresses the objection that Roman Catholic priests are not true Gospel ministers.  He mainly asserts that the confessional definition of a valid baptism as detailed above (and reflecting Scripture) does not include the character of its administrator. 

What he shares from Calvin also is helpful.  First, in his Institutes, after Calvin refutes the ancient Donatists he confidently dismisses the Katabaptists of his day for denying the validity of his own Roman Catholic baptism and that of many others of the Reformation.  Then Hodge references a letter written by Calvin pointing out that those who were circumcised in the Old Testament by apostate priests were never re-circumcised.

Finally, Hodge answers the protest that the Roman Catholic Church is not a true church; essentially, he argues that it maintains the fundamental doctrines, however perverted.  Here it is worth considering how Paul deals with Galatia and Corinth as “saints”.

Hodge’s footnote summary near the end is perhaps most compelling:

… on this subject [of re-baptizing] we object to such repetition.  1. Because it involves a declaration of what is not true. It declares that to be no baptism which has all the essential characteristics of that sacrament … 2. Because we have neither scriptural authority nor example for the repetition of the rite; and such repetition is forbidden by our Confession of Faith, and is contrary to the usage of the whole Christian Church.  3. Because it is contrary to the very nature of the ordinance …[4]

And he closes most emphatically:

We are, therefore, constrained to regard the decision of the Assembly as in direct conflict with our standards, and with the word of God; and as incompatible with Protestant principles, as well as with the practice of the whole Protestant world. We have no scruple in saying this. For in protesting against the decision of one hundred and sixty-nine members of the Assembly, we can hide ourselves in the crowd of 169,000,000 of faithful men who since the Reformation have maintained the opposite and more catholic doctrine.[5]

In the end, our Session was persuaded by Dr. Hodge, who also during his time turned the tide[6] so that valid baptisms were not swept away with it.

[1] Charles Hodge, “The Validity of Romish Baptism,” in Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner’s, Sons, 1878) , 191-215.  Another more recent work on the topic that warrants study is Francis Nigel Lee’s “Calvin on the Validity of ‘Romish’ Baptism”.

[2] Hodge, 192.

[3] Ibid., 198.

[4] Ibid., 214.

[5] Ibid.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Grant Van Leuven