Project Canterbury

Religious Thought in the Oxford Movement

By Clement Charles Julian Webb, M.A., F.B.A.

London: SPCK, 1928.
New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Section V. Baptismal Regeneration


IT has to be borne in mind that baptism for St. Paul and the New Testament writers meant the solemn voluntary act of the mature person, who thereby definitely enrolled himself as a member of the Christian community. The association of it with the forgiveness of sins, which the washing of the new convert with water vividly symbolized, as he descended, as it were, with Christ into the river of death and rose again from its cleansing stream to share his new life among his followers, was natural and inevitable. Where, in point of fact, there were never disjoined from one another the faith of the convert, his public profession of it, the ceremony of his admission to the Church, the birthday of his new life as a Christian, whose sins were pardoned and himself declared righteous through his investment with Christ's righteousness, there was no need for curious inquiry as to the precise relation to each other of the various factors and aspects, external and internal, of the one grand action in which a man turned from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness, from the Kingdom of Satan to the Kingdom of God. It is otherwise when we are dealing with the child of Christians, born into a Christian community, and baptized as an infant, without any choice in the matter or any consciousness of the nature and meaning of the rite to which he was submitted. What, in such a case, was the relation of his baptism to such conversion as he might undergo at a later period? If he should ever begin to live a new life of conscious union with God instead of one of religious indifference or even of definite violation of moral laws, was not this, rather than the unconscious reception of a symbolic sprinkling which had meant nothing to him then or afterwards, his "regeneration"? And could one baptized in infancy, who should never display in his life any sense of religion at all, be said with any propriety to be "regenerate" at all? Yet the authorized formularies of the Church unquestionably affirmed that the baptized, as such, were regenerate; and the institution of infant baptism, so far from being due to any intention of converting into a mere outward rite of initiation into the community what had been originally the outward and visible sign of a new relation of the individual soul to God, was rather motived by the desire of Christians to secure to their children as early as possible this same new relation, on which the most momentous consequences, in this life and the next, were held to hang. These questions were further complicated with that of the relation of baptism to that predestination to life by the eternal will of God, which the teaching of St. Paul seemed to represent as the necessary condition of ultimate salvation, and which no one was prepared to assert could be presumed in all the baptized.


The Tractarians, as has been already remarked, were confronted with a phase of Evangelicalism which appeared to them to make feeling, which is individual, subjective, variable, and only imperfectly under the control of the will, the test of justification; and in opposition to this the ancient language which connected justification with baptism commended itself to them as securing to the Christian the opportunity of participation in the divine-human life of Christ, independently of and prior to any such excitation of feeling as those they were criticizing seemed to regard as essential to the obtaining of the status of children of God and inheritors of his promises.

A hasty critic of this position might at first see in this merely a substitution, from the ethical point of view, thoroughly reactionary, of ceremonial purity, conferred by a rite in which the recipient, who in the vast majority of cases was baptized in infancy, was not even a conscious subject of the operation, still less a voluntary agent, for a genuine spiritual act of the individual convinced of sin and embracing for himself by faith the offer of salvation. But in the thought of the Tractarians the ethical advantage was all on the side of their position. The Evangelical appeal encouraged sinners simply to put aside obedience to the moral law as something with which the vicarious sacrifice of Christ accepted by faith had dispensed; while, on the other hand, a genuine conviction that in baptism he had been actually "born again," that there had been imparted to him the new life of the risen Christ with all its power to achieve holiness, was calculated at once greatly to encourage an obedience towards which this grace infused into him by baptism could supply so powerful an aid, and immensely to heighten the gravity of sins committed by those who had been, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, "enlightened" and had "tasted of the heavenly gift." [Heb. vi. 4.] No Tractarian utterance startled and dismayed more than a famous sermon of Pusey on the "irreparableness of post-baptismal sin." Moral laxity was the last thing in the world associated in the mind of the Tractarians with their insistence on the prerogatives of the sacrament of baptism. In this matter they were, in fact, not very far from the position of Luther himself in his treatise on the Babylonish Captivity, where he assails the Church of his day for disparaging baptism by its exaltation of subsequent vows, insists upon the assurance of salvation to all who believe and are baptized, and holds that the faith of the Church replaced, in the case of baptism, that of the individual, even as the paralytic man in the Gospel was healed by the faith of others.

But while we must entirely acquit the Tractarians of any concession to an unethical view of the Christian status in their emphasis on infant baptism as a true regeneration, and as the actual instrument of justification--for it was in quite the opposite character that it appealed to them, as bound up with that insistence on the indispensable-ness of obedience to the moral law which, rightly or wrongly, they missed in current Evangelicalism--this must not, of course, prevent us from recognizing how easily such a doctrine as theirs can be perverted into one which confounds sacramental with magical efficacy by allowing the former, abstracted from its relation to a sacred society, to exist where voluntary and personal activity on the part of the beneficiary is absent.

It would generally be allowed that the strength of the objection made to infant baptism by those who are called Baptists lies in the obvious unreality of employing the high language of Scripture about those who, in their baptism, had definitely broken with the world, the flesh, and the devil and enlisted themselves under the banner of Christ to describe persons who have been as a matter of social routine submitted in unconscious infancy to a traditional ceremony and have grown up quite without any sense of having committed themselves to any manner of life other than that suggested by the ordinary conventions of the society around them. Thoughtful apologists of infant baptism would admit that, apart from a genuine guarantee of Christian upbringing, infant baptism is a mockery, all the more profane the less it is thought of as a mere ceremony and the more there is attributed to it, at least potentially, a supernatural efficacy. The real defence against a superstitious view of sacraments is not a reduction of them to the position of mere outward ceremonies, having no organic connection, if one may so express oneself, with the spiritual experiences which they symbolize, but a grasp of their social character and of sociality as an essential feature of spiritual life.

The Tractarians would, no doubt, have denied, and justly denied, that they overlooked the social character of sacraments; the sacraments were the sacraments of the Church, and it was not only Ward whose imagination was filled with an "Ideal of the Christian Church" as that which it was the mission of his school to realize in his native country.

"I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till I have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."

This was as truly the resolve of the sons of the Oxford Movement as it is that of their socialistic grandchildren. But their Jerusalem was quite definitely a Christian Church.

Nor would it be just to them to suggest that they ignored the essential sociality of the spiritual life. The thought of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ which expresses precisely this fact in the form of a religious dogma was very familiar and significant to them, though not, perhaps, carried out to the point at which, in the devotional writings of one of the second generation of the Movement, the late Father Richard Meux Benson, founder of the Cowley Society of St. John the Evangelist, it sometimes seems even to threaten the permanence of individual personality.

Yet even when justice is done to these features of their teaching, it remains true that the men of the Oxford Movement, sons of an age in which the philosophy dominant in their country was profoundly individualistic, and in which the influence of Hegelianism had as yet not seriously affected English thought, did not keep clearly in view that essentially social character of the bestowal of grace through sacraments, by the recognition of which alone can they be satisfactorily discriminated from magical rites. And it is obvious that this discrimination becomes most important in the case of baptism because this was the only sacrament commonly administered in the Church of England to recipients unquestionably incapable of a voluntary act of faith. Moreover, that aspect the Oxford Movement in which, in the spirit of the great Romantic movement, of which it was in one point of view a part, it sought to restore to religion and to life the mystery whereof the rationalistic Enlightenment had seemed to empty them, disposed it to accept without unwillingness a doctrine so mysterious as that of the implantation in the soul, by means of the administration of baptism to the body in unconscious infancy, of a seed of new moral and spiritual life, needing, perhaps, to be fostered hereafter by other means, but no less truly there from the first than is in the embryo the potentiality of physical human life from the moment of conception.

The insistence by the Tractarians on the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration, plainly asserted, it is true, in the Prayer-Book service, was closely bound up with their whole conception of the Christian life as a mysterious incorporation of the individual personality into the Humanity of God Incarnate, whereby the powers of that humanity are imparted to it in principle and are at its disposal in proportion to the absence in the individual of the obstacle which sin puts in the way of the free course of divine grace, and also to the positive response of faith and love with which the individual meets the offer of that grace; a response which, however, must no doubt be regarded as itself originally the effect of the presence of that grace in the soul. At the same time their reverence for ecclesiastical tradition and their readiness to welcome mystery in religion prevented them from stumbling at the peculiar difficulty created by the application to infant baptism of language which might pass without criticism where submission to baptism was the regular and normal expression and seal of a conversion to Christ, wherein the offer of forgiveness for sins past and thereby of justification--the declaration that the convert was cleared of guilt--was solemnly accepted by the individual of his own free will.


In 1849, the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, having refused to institute to a living in his diocese, on the ground that he denied the doctrine of the Church of England, a Calvinistic clergyman named Gorham, who held that the grace of regeneration was not, strictly speaking, granted in baptism, but either as "prevenient grace" prior to it or afterwards at conversion. The Court of Arches upheld the Bishop in his refusal, but the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to whom Gorham appealed decided that the views in question did not constitute a ground for such action. There was naturally great searching of hearts on this occasion in the Tractarian party, which was now led by Pusey--for Newman had seceded to Rome five years previously. There were not a few, Keble among them, who thought that the toleration of Gorham by a court which, though they questioned its competence, was de facto the supreme tribunal of the Church of England, gravely compromised the position of that Church as an orthodox branch of the Catholic Church. Pusey, however, while he readily lent the assistance of his learning in Christian antiquity to the Bishop in preparing his defence, and though he had been always especially prominent as a defender of the doctrine which Gorham was supposed to have impugned, was less moved than many of his followers. It was characteristic that this was in part due to his sympathy with the jealousy of the Evangelicals for the claims of conversion, which he rightly held to lie behind their dislike of language about Baptismal Regeneration which, though theologically accurate, was genuinely misunderstood as denying the need of conversion whenever there had been baptism in infancy. He addressed a letter to the newspapers in which he quoted as evidence of this the statement of Gorham's chief apologist, a certain Goode. "The great and all-important doctrine," Goode had said, "to be contended for is that an adult is not necessarily in a state of spiritual regeneration because he was baptized as an infant." "If Mr. Goode means by this," Pusey commented, "that an adult is not necessarily in a state of grace, and so may require a solid and entire conversion, notwithstanding the gift of God in baptism, no Christian instructed in the first principles of the Faith would contend with him." [Letter to the Press, December, 1849.] That same fundamental emphasis on the primary importance of a good life which had inspired the Tractarian dislike of any doctrine which appeared to recommend instead of it reliance on mere feeling under the name of faith was equally at variance with any substitution for it of trust in a past reception of sacramental grace, however real that reception may have been at the time. Accordingly, after the Privy Council's judgment had been delivered, we find Pusey declaring at a meeting of High Churchmen at Freemasons' Hall in London that "Peace will be best secured by laying down truly and in all its depth and fulness and in its connection with the Incarnation and death and merits of Christ the truth of Baptismal Regeneration, but also by laying down the other truth that those who have been made in baptism the children of God must by God's grace live as children of God, and those who have fallen from that grace must be restored by a thorough conversion to God." Pusey, however, although in this way ready to do justice to the motive of his opponents in the controversy, and satisfied that the Privy Council's decision had not involved the Church of England in the guilt of heresy, yet joined in protests against the judgment and declarations that he and those who thought with him would continue to teach Baptismal Regeneration not merely as a tolerated opinion, but as the genuine doctrine of the Church.

On account of this action, one of the ablest of the Tractarians, James Mozley, Newman's brother-in-law, afterwards Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, having come to the conclusion that the Gorham judgment was substantially right, and that there was nothing inconsistent with the Church's teaching in denying that baptism necessarily and in every case involved regeneration, thought himself bound to dissociate himself from Pusey and his friends, and gave up his connection with the Christian Remembrancer, the organ of the party which they led, though continuing in sympathy with their general line of thought. In a work full of learning and good sense, in which some seven years later he reviewed the whole controversy, he pointed out that the key to it lay in the fact that the practice of infant baptism had been introduced into and maintained in the Church "in combination with the idea of an institution primarily for adults." [The Baptismal Controversy, p. 23.] The Church had "never ventured upon the step of a total removal of the infant from the basis of the adult in baptism." The fathers and the schoolmen maintained that the infant as such was qualified for the grace of baptism, since it offered no impediment to it. The divines of the Reformation, on the other hand, maintained that baptism was always conditional, and that infants and adults stood upon the same ground--namely, that of faith and repentance. There were two Reformed theories: one that baptism was in the infant's case an anticipatory rite, and was only attended by grace when its recipient as an adult believed and repented; the other the theory of a "prevenient grace," which implanted faith in the infant before baptism. This was thought to remove the difficulty of supposing justification in baptism without faith, a difficulty which St. Thomas had met by supposing justifying faith to be given in baptism, a supposition which was, however, plainly open to the objection that faith was no longer under this scheme, as St. Paul's teaching would seem to imply, the antecedent condition of justification, but an integral part of it. Mozley's conclusion was that as "Scripture is silent with respect to infants as recipients of the grace of baptism . . . it follows that though the doctors of antiquity give one plan of this omitted ground, the doctors of the Reformation another, neither plan can, according to the rule of faith adopted by our Church, compel our acceptance, and that therefore, according to the rule of our Church, the regeneration of all infants is not an article of faith"; and this was precisely what the Gorham judgment had affirmed.

The term "regenerate" was no doubt used in the Anglican formularies of all baptized infants; but the term was from Patristic times onwards ambiguous. It had, firstly, a "poetical, rhetorical, or hypothetical" sense, carrying on the language of the Old Testament about the chosen people, and that of the New Testament about the Church as a whole, where the whole nation or Church "is by supposition regarded as being what certain individuals of it really are"; secondly, a "technical or conventional" sense, in which it is only used as a term for outward and visible baptism; thirdly, a "doctrinal sense; and under this head we have," says Mozley, "first, the general statement that regeneration is the grace of baptism; secondly, that adults are regenerate in baptism upon the condition of faith and repentance; and, thirdly, that all infants are regenerate in baptism." The main body of language employed in the primitive Church, down to A.D. 300, was composed with adult baptism specially in mind.

Ignoring the ambiguity of the ancient usage and the special application of the earliest language to adult baptism only, Pusey, says Mozley, while he earnestly rejects any other sense of the word "regenerate" than the very highest, or that implying actual goodness, yet deprecates any less extensive application of the term than that which includes all baptized infants. This combination of the highest sense with the universal application is nowhere, Mozley complains, explained in the text of Pusey's Tract on the subject. The assumption that the limited and special use of the term "regeneration" in connection with baptism has the precedence above the other higher and fuller sense, "so that the sense of actual conversion of heart has to be apologized for," he declares to be a departure from the older traditions of Anglican--even of High Church Anglican--theology.

I have given at some length some of the principal positions of Mozley's treatise because it exhibits so clearly the issues at stake in the controversy; but I have omitted any reference to that important part of it which deals with the problems raised by the combination (as in St. Augustine and in some of the Reformers) of a strongly pre-destinarian doctrine with a belief in a connection between regeneration and baptism; because this is not a combination characteristic of the Tractarian theology, though it had a very direct bearing on the question of Gorham's orthodoxy. But there are two points in Mozley's treatment to which I desire to draw special attention; one on account of the illustration which it affords of what Dr. Brilioth calls the "moralism" of the Oxford school; the other because it exemplifies what I have elsewhere noted as a defect of the mode of thought which that school as a whole shared with most of their contemporaries in this country.

I. On the first point I will give some significant quotations. "Is it reasonable," asks Mozley, "to suppose that a moral habit can be imparted to a human being by a particular outward rite? Such a result is less startling in the case of infants because the germ and commencement of life is in itself a kind of mystery. But we must feel great difficulty in the idea of a moral habit being formed by an external rite in the grown and mature man. Such an effect of the sacrament comes into direct collision with reasonable modes of thinking of which we find ourselves possessed." Some, perhaps many, Tractarians would have stumbled at this plain-spoken statement; but the unhesitating appeal to the moral consciousness is thoroughly in accord with the main tradition of their theology. "The acceptable thing in the sight of God," Mozley adds, "is actual holiness and goodness: where this is had, no defect of ritual can possibly interfere with the individual's favour in his sight."

2. On the second point I would remark that the whole discussion, as conducted by Mozley, proceeds upon thoroughly individualistic lines. Individual salvation occupies the central place in his thought; the conception of the nation or Church as a spiritual unity, to which moral predicates can be applied, is, as we have seen, to him merely "poetical, rhetorical, or hypothetical," asserting of a group what is, in point of fact, only true of certain members of it. The possibility that our pride in the achievements, our shame at the failures, of our country or our college, though we may not ourselves have contributed to them, points to a genuine social consciousness as a real feature of our human nature, never seems to occur to him. But, as we have seen, this is only a striking exhibition of a lack which characterizes Tractarian thought in general, notwithstanding the party's mission of receiving the idea of the Church as an article of Christian faith. It was necessary for the English mind to experience the influence of the Hegelian philosophy, on the one hand, and of the Darwinian biology on the other before that idea could have its full effect on the theology of the school. A strong mystical bent might in an individual teacher, as we see in the instance of Richard Meux Benson, anticipate this full effect; but is only with the Lux Mundi group, who stood under both the influences I have mentioned, that the notion of the Church as a truly organic unity can be said to have established itself in Anglo-Catholic thought.

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