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Anglican Baptism: Regenerative and Salvific Through Sacrament and Faith

Anglicanism is a diverse and varied tradition. Before the Reformation, Anglicanism refers to whatever Christians were doing1 in the British Isles. Post-reformation, Anglicanism applies to the ecclesial bodies identifying with the pre-denominational Christianity of Britain and continuing to live in that communion.2 Anglicanism, on the one hand, identifies as an ancient expression of the Christian faith existing before the Great Schism. Thus, Anglicanism is — with the Roman and Eastern churches — a Catholic and apostolic body. Further, however, the Anglican Communion did not resist the Reformation. It accepted and adopted many reformational tenants; Anglicans identify — to varying degrees — as at least Reformed, but also Protestant. Reformed and yet Catholic is the lived middle way — via media — of Anglicanism.

If any Christian tradition entirely lives lex orandi, lex credendi — what is prayed is what is believed —, Anglicanism is it. Having no particular founder, no fundamental specific doctrines, nor a specific initiatory event, Anglicanism is defined more by a common series of practices and rites rather than one particular dogma. Holy Scripture, Church tradition, and reason define doctrine in Anglicanism.03 Unlike other Christian bodies during the Reformation period, the English saw no need to establish a new ecclesial body. The Reformation in England led not to new churches, but to a new freedom to those within the Church to broaden their theological perspectives. Within the Church of England, one could find those who held to traditional medieval theology, Lutherans, Calvinist, Arminians, and those holding to various shades and mixtures of these views.4 Because of this pluralistic theological environment, the English work of reformation sat not with a document of a doctrinal declaration, but rather with a movement to produce English-language materials for Christians; namely, the Bible and the liturgies/prayers of the Church.

Along with the various authorized English Bible translations, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), became a primary source of doctrine within Anglicanism. Herein lies the difficulty in determining a single Anglican understanding of any particular belief. Though Anglicans share a baptismal rite, their interpretation of the words and actions in that ritual vary significantly. This, from the English Reformation to the present, has caused many theological debates and divisions within the English Church. Prime among the debates in Anglicanism is that of baptismal regeneration.

The rite of baptism for infants in the 1662 BCP5 makes it clear that no one can “enter into the kingdom of God” unless he or she is “regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost.”6 Before the baptism is performed the priest and congregation pray that the child, “may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration.”7 After the baptism, the priest states to the congregation that the “Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church” and further a prayer of thanksgiving is given to God for making the child “regenerate” with his Holy Spirit.8 The 39 Articles of Religion9 further state that baptism is “not only a sign of profession” but “also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church.”10 It also states that sacraments are “not only badges or tokens” — signs — of an outward profession. Sacraments are “sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace” through which God works “invisibly in” Christians to not only “quicken” — make alive — “our Faith in him” but also to “strengthen and confirm” it.11

The beauty and also problematizing wording of the common rite of the Prayer Book is that it intentionally allows for a variety of readings. Anglo-Catholics holding to more traditional and Thomist views of the sacraments can faithfully pray the rite meaning every word. Highly Reformed Anglicans, too, can faithfully pray the rite. The traditionalist/Anglo-Catholic view is that baptism is a sacrament that effects a real change in the recipient.12 Through God’s grace, baptism regenerates13 the recipient into a new birth whereby it washes the effects of original sin away. In baptism, the person is justified — saved from eternal damnation through the merits of Jesus Christ — and can live a new life of sanctification empowered by the Holy Spirit.14 Though the recipient can resist the fruits of regeneration and reject God’s justification, the change is real and through repentance can be re-engaged. The Evangelical/Reformed view of baptism is that the regeneration or new birth15 is affected by the Holy Spirit when a person accepts the gracious gift of salvation from Jesus.16 Though baptism is a sign of this new birth and is a public covenant made by the recipient of accepting and living into the lordship of Jesus Christ, it is God the Holy Spirit through the merits of God the Son who affects the change.17 There is an effect from the new birth and baptism is God’s provided form of worship to initiate that covenant publicly, but the rite in and of itself is not the source of the new birth; that is an act of the Holy Spirit on the believer.18

In contemporary Anglican practice, the traditionalist/Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical/Reformed views still carry much weight; however, the majority party in the Communion holds a view more in line with the via media of the English Reformers. The middle way of baptismal regeneration stays true to the words of the Prayer Book but does not necessarily define the how or why.19 Both the Reformed and Anglo-Catholic views of baptism are correct and differ mostly in emphasis of viewpoint. Sacraments do have effects, but God is the source of those effects. Whether sacramentally endued through the mediation of the faithfulness of Church of God or given by grace through a personal relationship with God and signified to the community through tokens, the end effect is an extraordinary measure of God’s grace breaking into the life of a once-dead sinner.20 The majority view is merely to affirm what the Prayer Books says and nothing more; to live into the tension and mystery of sacraments, of God’s election, and humanity’s intersection and interaction with it all.

In reaction to the baptismal regeneration debates of the past centuries, modern Prayer Books within Anglicanism intentionally have removed “regeneration” from the text and standardized on “new birth” instead. The 1979 BCP21 ritual for baptism, for example, thanks God for bestowing upon the baptized, “the forgiveness of sin” and raising them, “to the new life of grace.”22 The draft 2019 BCP service of baptism similarly states that the baptized are, “reborn by the Holy Spirit” and “cleansed from sin.”23 The focus on “new birth” instead of “regeneration” eases discomfort for the Evangelical party while having limited impact on the traditionalist and moderate majority’s interpretation of baptism.

The Anglican Church in North America’s (ACNA) catechism continues in the “yes, and” nuanced tradition of Anglicanism. The Catechism provides wording that can imply sacramental effects of baptism “[t]he inward and spiritual grace set forth [in baptism] is a death to sin and a new birth to righteousness.”24 It also makes it clear that sacramental grace is received, “through union with Christ in his death and resurrection.”25 Sacramental grace is given only when “rightly received” in faith.26 Modern Anglican practice, then, — in general — is an outward and pastoral high-sacramental stance, with a nuanced Reformed theological view when pressed for a systematic response.

J.I. Packer in his essay on baptism and regeneration for the ACNA’s Liturgy Task Force,27 stands as an example of recent engagement with baptism and baptismal regeneration in the Anglican tradition. Packer sees baptismal regeneration or new birth as a relational change between the Divine and the baptized. Baptism — through God’s grace made manifest in the communal life of the Church — brings people into a “new and richer pattern of living.”28 In this new life, Christians share in the Triune life of God in their daily lives so far as they display a “personal faith.”29 Baptism, received in faith, does indeed regenerate the recipient and lead her or him into a new life stage of sanctification or Christian growth.30

This concern for Christian growth is the reason for the 2019 BCP’s pastoral concern for sponsors for the baptismal candidate and the instruction to baptize publicly during the parish’s chief Sunday service. Baptism, rightly, is a communal act of the entire Church, in fidelity to God, won through the merits of Jesus Christ. The congregation covenants before God to aid in the baptized’s Christian growth, because baptism grafts the baptized into the Body of Christ; the Church is one Body.

The Anglican doctrine of baptism — especially as it related to regeneration — was confused during the awakenings of the eighteenth-century. George Whitefield, the Wesleys, and others compounded the regeneration of baptism with the emotional, “born again” experiences of the evangelical movements. Baptism moved from the “sacrament of remission and regeneration”31 envisioned by the Anglican Reformers, to a symbolic act of admission into Church membership. Baptism was further drawn away from traditional Anglican understandings by theologians like William Perkins and Jonathan Edwards citing Continental Reformers, and by seventeenth-century Puritanism. The nineteenth-century Tractarian — Anglo-Catholic — response to Continental Reformed theology, further confused the Anglican understanding of baptism by introducing Medieval theological terminology foreign to the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book.32

The 2019 BCP and the ACNA Catechism show the contemporary Anglican response to the theological movements and confusions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Modern practice elevates baptism as a sacrament with real effect. Not only a symbol, baptism is said to make the baptized, “God’s child by grace.”33 Further, in the 2019 BCP baptism rite, it is made clear that baptism effects regeneration and justification. The baptized are given “forgiveness of sin,” adopted as God’s children, made members of God’s church, and raised to a “new life of grace.”34 Pastorally, the continued language of baptismal regeneration and justification brings peace and solace to parents. Additionally, it gives assurance to those struggling with the life of faith, that their faith in Jesus is sufficient for salvation.

Rejecting the loaded term of “regeneration” and standardizing on “new birth” — while also redefining its Anglican use — has brought theological clarity to the Anglican tradition. Using Evangelical/Reformed terminology, baptism still provides a real soteriological effect. Though an “outward and visible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace” — Reformed language — baptism provides what the Catechism calls a “tangible assurance” of one’s justification.35 Shedding the language of Medieval Christian theology that caused so much theological strife, the modern Anglican tradition can still proclaim baptism as a true sacrament — more than a symbol or ordinance. All the while, to counter any notion of baptism imparting justification ex opere operato, the Catechism continues to make it clear that the effects of baptism only come through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.36 Embracing the via media, modern Anglican formularies of baptism are both Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformed; leveraging the pastoral and theological possibilities all three traditions provide.

Though theological parties within the Anglican tradition continue to debate and discuss the details, recent Prayer Books — as exemplified by the proposed 2019 ACNA BCP — show an effort to transcend theological tensions and reclaim a shared theology of baptism. The modern rites of baptism show a core Anglican understanding of baptism emerging from centuries of conflict. Without defining the exact details, sacraments are “an encounter between God and his people” through material means.37 God the Holy Spirit works through material things — “common stuff” — to impart God’s grace.38 Baptism brings the Christian into the death of Jesus spoken of in Romans 639 and into full membership of the Church.40 Jesus shows his faithfulness to the Church by ensuring that all who remain faithful to him cannot have their justification taken away from them. In baptism, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God by Jesus’ initiative. Baptism is not something we do ourselves, but an act of God. Yes, the believer must faithfully accept God’s offer of grace, but this is all. Baptism is a means of justification because Jesus alone can save. No person is faithful or good enough for justification outside of the unmerited mercy and grace of God won through Jesus on the cross.41 The Anglican view of baptism provides room for theological exploration — Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, etc. — while maintaining a pastoral stance where baptism applies the salvation won by Jesus to the life of the sinner and assures eternal justification through continued faith in Jesus’ work on the cross.


Bibliography

Anglican Church in North America, and Catechesis Task Force. To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. Ambridge, PA: Anglican House Pub Inc, 2014.

“Anglican Church in North America: Texts for Common Prayer.” Accessed October 28, 2017. http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer.

Bromiley, G. W. Baptism and the Anglican Reformers. London: Lutterworth Press, 1953.

Church of England. The Articles of Religion: Agreed upon by the Archbishops, Bishops, and the whole clergy of the Provinces of Canterbury and York. London, 1562.

Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer …: Together with the Psalter … and the Form & Manner of Making, Ordaining & Consecrating, Bishops, Priests and Deacons. London: Printed by His Majesties Printers, 1662.

Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church : Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. New York : [Greenwich, Conn.]: Church Hymnal ; Seabury Press, 1979.

The High-church Theory of Baptism. Philadelphia: T.K. & P.G. Collins, 1853.

McKenzie, Thomas. The Anglican Way: A Guidebook. Nashville, TN: Colony Catherine, 2014.

Tyng, Stephen H. Fellowship with Christ: A Guide to the Sacraments. New York: Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, 1854.


  1. Ritual, theology, and ecclesiology, for example. [return]
  2. McKenzie, The Anglican Way, 13-16. [return]
  3. Anglo-Catholics, specifically, are more likely to see Scripture and tradition as a single source of authority instead of two sources. [return]
  4. McKenzie, The Anglican Way, 19-25. [return]
  5. Church of England. [The Book of Common Prayer …: Together with the Psalter … and the Form & Manner of Making, Ordaining & Consecrating, Bishops, Priests and Deacons]. London: Printed by His Majesties Printers, 1662. [return]
  6. Ibid., “The Order of Baptism both Public and Private”, 263-278. [return]
  7. Ibid. [return]
  8. Ibid. [return]
  9. Church of England. The Articles of Religion: Agreed upon by the Archbishops, Bishops, and the whole clergy of the Provinces of Canterbury and York. London, 1562. [return]
  10. Ibid., Article 27. [return]
  11. Ibid., Article 25. [return]
  12. The High-Church Theory of Baptism, 6. [return]
  13. “Regeneration” is the preferred term of the Anglo-Catholic party within Anglicanism. [return]
  14. Ibid., 6-8 & Bromiley, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers, 171. [return]
  15. Though synonyms, “new birth” is the preferred terminology of Reformed and Evangelical Anglicans. This is due to “regeneration” having strong associations with Anglo-Catholic baptismal theologies. [return]
  16. Tyng, Fellowship with Christ, 11. [return]
  17. Ibid., 48-50. [return]
  18. Ibid., 18-20. [return]
  19. McKenzie, The Anglican Way, 152-153. [return]
  20. Bromiley, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers, 6-7, 12, 17, 174, 193. [return]
  21. Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church : Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. New York : [Greenwich, Conn.]: Church Hymnal ; Seabury Press, 1979. [return]
  22. Ibid., “Holy Baptism”, 299-314. [return]
  23. “Anglican Church in North America: Texts for Common Prayer.” Accessed October 28, 2017. http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer. [return]
  24. Anglican Church in North America and Catechesis Task Force, To Be a Christian, 106. [return]
  25. Ibid. [return]
  26. Ibid. [return]
  27. “Anglican Church in North America: Texts for Common Prayer.” Baptism and Regeneration, Accessed October 28, 2017. http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer. [return]
  28. Ibid., 5. [return]
  29. Ibid. [return]
  30. Ibid. [return]
  31. Bromiley, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers, xiii. [return]
  32. “Anglican Church in North America: Texts for Common Prayer.” Baptism and Regeneration, Accessed October 28, 2017. http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer, 6. [return]
  33. Anglican Church in North America and Catechesis Task Force, To Be a Christian, 106. [return]
  34. “Anglican Church in North America: Texts for Common Prayer,” Holy Baptism, Accessed October 28, 2017. http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer. [return]
  35. Anglican Church in North America and Catechesis Task Force, To Be a Christian, 102. [return]
  36. Ibid., 107, 108. [return]
  37. McKenzie, The Anglican Way, 149. [return]
  38. Ibid. [return]
  39. Ibid., 151. [return]
  40. Ibid., 152. [return]
  41. Ibid., 153. [return]