Home > baptism, the church (ecclesiology) > Presbyterian vs Congregationalist vs Baptist Sacramentology

Presbyterian vs Congregationalist vs Baptist Sacramentology

Visible Saints and Notorious Sinners: Presbyterian Sacramental Doctrine and Practice and the Vicissitudes of the Baptist Movement in New England and the Middle Colonies is an interesting essay from OPC pastor Peter J. Wallace. He argues that after the Great Awakening, baptist convinctions grew in Congretationalist New England but not in the Presbyterian Middle Colonies because of a difference in sacramentology. Both baptized infants, but they had different views of the visible church.

Congregationalists held to the “English Puritan” belief in “visible saints.” The visible church is for those who have been saved. The Scots and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians rejected that idea. The visible church is for those who want to be saved. Wallace traces some of the history involving Isaac Backus, showing how the baptists convincingly pointed out that if the church is for those who have been saved, then there is no reason left for baptizing infants.

In Congregationalism, in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper (become a “communicant member”), one had to become a visible saint by professing that they were saved.

While the early Puritans, such as William Perkins, still insisted on baptizing all children within the parish [i.e. every English-born child], the increasing emphasis on inward subjectivity and the “disciplined and communal character of the Christian life” in English Puritanism led to a growing emphasis on baptizing only the children of visible saints.[14]  The original New England Puritans attempted to combine the ideal of the pure church with the holy commonwealth [i.e. state church], holding purity and inclusiveness in tension.[15]

They began to recognize this tension and adopted the Half-Way Covenant solution: rather than becoming a visible saint, one merely had to “assent” to Christian doctrine and the desire to be saved in order to have their children baptized (they had to have “historical faith”). They still could not take the Lord’s Supper. According to Wallace, this was a half-step back towards Presbyterianism (rooted in the parish model). “Hereafter the sacraments took on new functions in New England culture:  baptism was the symbol of inclusion in the holy commonwealth, while the Lord’s Supper became the test of purity within the commonwealth.”

Stoddard

Many years later, New England Congregationalist pastor Solomon Stoddard recognized that tension still remained. He took another half-step back towards presbyterianism.

[T]he inclusive policies of the Halfway Covenant received an extra push from the presbyterianizing Solomon Stoddard… Stoddard argued that the church should indeed consist of visible saints, and that those who did not exhibit such signs should be excluded altogether and banished from the church.  But those who qualified for baptism also thereby qualified for the Lord’s Supper.  The Halfway Covenant erred in retaining too strict a definition of visible saints:  “There is not the least foundation in Scripture, for two sort of adult members, one that might, an other that might not come to the Lords Supper; unless they were under offense, or wanted sufficient knowledge for that Ordinance.”[26] Instead, he declared that the Table was for all who made a “solemn Profession of Faith, & Repentance, & are of Godly Conversation, having Knowledge to Examine themselves, & discern the Lords Body.”  This profession was not “an Affirmation that they have Saving Faith and Repentance” but only “an Assent unto, & Acknowledgement of the Doctrine of Faith & Repentance (as the onely Doctrine according to which they hope for Salvation) together with a Promise of Obedience to all the Commandments of God.”[27]

When Stoddard replied in 1690 that the Lord’s Supper was a converting ordinance, he did so on the grounds that the means of grace were intended for all those in the visible church, not only for those who were regenerate, but for all members of the covenant–thereby including only those unregenerate who were already within the covenant.[30]

Edwards & the Baptists

On February 15, 1727, Edwards was ordained minister at Northampton and assistant to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard died 2 years later, leaving Edwards to fill the pulpit. Eventually, Edwards came to disagree with Stoddard’s sacramentology and returned to the Half-Way Covenant, requiring a profession of saving faith for admission to the Lord’s Table. The Northhampton congregation kicked Edwards out of the pulpit, but his views took root elsewhere.

Insisting that only those who were admitted to the Lord’s Supper could have their children baptized (and requiring transfers from “impure” churches to make a full profession of faith), the New Divinity pastors were often indistinguishable from the Separatists, and frequently cooperated willingly with Isaac Backus and the growing Baptist movement.[37]

Moses Mather and the Old Calvinist establishment responded with alarm.  If gracious affections are “the Band of Union to the visible Church; it will follow, that no Person in an unrenewed State can be a Member of it.”[38]  In Mather’s mind, it was only a small step from such a position to denying infant baptism…

Pushing the visible saints criterion to the next step, Backus argued that only the Baptists could faithfully continue the New England tradition, since even Edwards and the New Lights compromised their principles by allowing non-professing infants into church membership.  Claiming that only the New Testament was a sufficient guide to understand who the church should admit to the sacraments, the Baptists relied heavily on the argumentation of the New Lights to show that the only way to guarantee a church full of visible saints was to stop baptizing babies.[43]

The Great Awakening alone (to say nothing of later developments) produced almost 100 separatist churches–many of which became Baptist.  C. C. Goen’s survey of these churches suggests that “the logic of the pure church ideal” drove New Englanders to affirm believers’ baptism as the only way to guarantee a pure church.[44]  Denying entirely that the “ordinances” of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were converting ordinances, Backus claimed that in them the “work of sanctification in believers is carried on,” but no salvific power.  Hence he denied access to all but visible saints.[45] He rejected infant baptism for several reasons:  1) it falsely supposed that there is no distinction between the old covenant, which was based on the family and the nation, and the new covenant, which was made purely with elect individuals; 2) it permitted the baptism of those who were neither regenerate nor even disciples, since they had not been taught; 3) historically, it was an innovation from the second or third century without warrant in the New Testament; 4) it violated the heart of the Puritan doctrine of visible saints, creating a territorial church that gets mingled with the world; 5) it is harmful to children by making them think that they are inside the covenant of grace, when actually even paedobaptists only believe that they are inside the external covenant; 6) if its advocates were truly consistent, they would give the Lord’s Supper to infants as well.[46]  His arguments resonated with his audience.  Within a span of only fifty years, nearly 300 Baptist churches were founded in New England.

Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism in America

Presbyterian sacramental doctrine and practice was rooted in its Scottish and Scotch-Irish background.  Puritan sacramental practices had developed through their attempt to purify the Church of England, resulting in an emphasis on the gathered congregation of visible saints, called out of the world.  Presbyterian sacramental practices had developed through the resistance of local communities against external pressure from England (not to mention a century of struggle with Scottish episcopacy), resulting in a strong emphasis on the sacraments as bonds which held together the whole community… Since Presbyterians emphasized the church “as the means of organising and disciplining the whole society” they only required “external [i.e. non-saving] profession and decent conduct” for church membership.[53] … This Scottish and Ulster Presbyterian community was transplanted to the new world, where it developed in slightly different directions from the parent communities, but still within a similar trajectory.

Wallace argues that Baptist principles did not experience the same growth in the Middle Colonies as it did in New England because Presbyterian sacramentology was not as susceptible to baptist critique of Congregationalism. Presbyterianism did not require a profession of saving faith – only an assent to the truth of Christian doctrine (“historical faith”).

The Presbyterian practice was that virtually everyone should be baptized (even those who were born of scandalous parents could be sponsored by godly folk, who would thereby promise to give them a Christian education).  But some profession was required for admission to the Lord’s Table.  Not indeed the Puritan requirement of a conversion narrative, nor an Edwardsean profession of the will; they simply required that each communicant have an adequate knowledge of Christian doctrine and an outwardly godly life.  Only the scandalous and profane were to be excluded from the Table…

The practice of American Presbyterians in determining the subjects of baptism prior to the Great Awakening was set forth in the Minutes of Synod in 1735:

“And [we] do also exhort all the ministers within our bounds, to take due care in the examination of all candidates for baptism, or that offer their children to God in that sacred ordinance, that they are persons of a regular life, and have suitable acquaintance with the principles of the Christian religion; that that seal be not set to a blank, and that such be not admitted to visible church relation that are manifestly unfit for it.” [68]

Here there is neither a requirement for an account of a conversion experience, nor is there any mention of a “profession of faith,” per se.  Insisting that ministers could not judge the heart, they did not require positive proof of godliness, merely an understanding of the gospel and a life that was consistent with such an understanding [i.e. not scandalous]…

[W]hile some New Side Presbyterians were drawn towards a practice that echoed certain features of the halfway covenant, others appear to have retained the traditional Presbyterian understanding that Christ called all who were “labouring and heavy laden” to the Table.  The key difference from the Congregational practice is that Presbyterianism had no strong tradition of the “visible saints” doctrine.  Rather, colonial Presbyterians had inherited from Ulster and southwestern Scotland a tendency to develop regional communities organized around their presbyteries…

This also helps to explain why Baptists never took root among the Scots and Scotch-Irish.  Baptists affirmed an extreme version of the Puritan visible saints criterion, insisting that the church should be composed only of the hopefully converted.  Presbyterians had little interest in starting with visible saints; they gathered all but the profane and scandalous into the church and through preaching, catechizing, and communing, sought to transform the community into visible saints.

John Green & Modern Presbyterianism

In 1764, under the influence of Edwards, John Green sought to change Presbyterian sacramentology.

At first he had followed his mentors, Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr in “admitting to the sacraments all who seemed desirous of leading a godly life,”[79] but now after reading Watts and Edwards he had decided that only those who could manifest a “relish for religion” would be permitted to have their children baptized (9)… Green concluded by asserting that membership in the visible church consisted of three things for an adult:  profession, life and baptism; but four for an infant:  being a child of believing parents, baptism, and then profession and life when he reached years of understanding.  Here he clearly followed the trend in New England to dissociate church membership from baptism.  Insisting that the church should discipline her youth, he argued that if by age eighteen or so they neither love Christ nor walk in his ways, churches should “drop them out of their number” (71).

Note that Green’s view matches the practice of modern American Presbyterianism. When a baptized infant becomes an adult, they must become a visible saint by professing saving faith, or else be dropped from membership entirely. But in the 18th century, Green’s views were rejected. “Faced with resolute opposition from even the New England-born ministers in the New York Presbytery, Green finally led a four minister secession in 1780, founding the independent Morris Presbytery on Edwardsean principles.”

Presbyterianism responded by the pen of John Blair. “Blair had previously established himself as one of the leading Edwardseans in the Presbyterian church” but came to reconsider his position. He argued since there is no promise of salvation outside the church, all those who want to be saved should be included.

Blair bluntly asserts that baptism alone makes one a church member:  “Membership in the Church of Christ admits not of Degrees” (9).  There are no grounds, he claimed, for distinguishing between the church and the congregation–as though one were gathered out of the other.  Rather, all who are baptized are commanded by Christ to come to the Table as soon as they have sufficient knowledge to examine themselves and discern the Lord’s body (11).

Rejecting Green’s insistence on trying to discern a work of grace, Blair argued that the “visible church consists of all those, who by an external Profession of the Doctrines of the Gospel, and subjection to the Laws and Ordinances of Christ, appear as a Society separate from the World, and dedicated to God and his Service” (13-14)…

Blair argued that if we view baptism as the seal of the covenant which truly makes us members of the visible church, then we should treat all baptized children as fully obligated to the covenant.  Those who do not live according to Christ should be cut off (20-21).  Yet the very means by which Christ has chosen to build faith within his people is through the sacraments.  Baptism and the Supper “exhibit Jesus Christ and him crucified” and by the Holy Spirit “quicken and raise the Affections, and enliven every grace” (21).  But if we truly believe that baptism brings our infants into the covenant, then we should believe that infants are “reputed the Professors of it untill they disavow it” (24).

But Blair went a step further and challenged the very notion of a profession of faith arguing that requiring a public profession of baptized infants denies their membership:  “Are not the signs which our Lord Jesus Christ has appointed and the Manner of Covenanting which he has prescribed sufficient, without the Addition of our own Inventions to supply the Defect?” (26).  Those who have been baptized should be welcomed to the Table as soon as they have sufficient knowledge to examine themselves.  No public profession is necessary…

[R]egeneration is not accomplished apart from the means of grace; hence we ought to welcome all who desire salvation into the church (74)…

In this argument Blair returns to the Scottish and Scots-Irish practice of viewing the sacraments as the bonds which hold the community together… [H]is description of the sacraments as converting ordinances … echoes the Stoddardean approach.  As odd as it may sound, Blair utilized an Edwardsean understanding of regeneration to undergird his Stoddardean (or more precisely, Presbyterian) view of the sacraments.

Conclusion

Wallace concludes

Scots and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians had never developed the “visible saints” criterion that had arisen among the English Puritans, but had welcomed all who desired salvation into the church.  While both camps may have sounded similar when insisting upon faithful participation in the Lord’s Supper, the actual practice of communion differed drastically, due to the fundamentally different conceptions of the nature of the visible church.

Below is attempt to categorize these differing views.

Baptism
Lord’s Supper
Non-Communicant Adults
Examples
Scottish Presbyterianism
all in external covenant:
regenerate & unregenerate
all in external covenant:
regenerate & unregenerate
only the scandalous; barred from communion but continue as members
John Blair, Solomon Stoddard
Half-Way Covenant
all in external covenant:
regenerate & unregenerate
visible saints
(profession of saving faith)
all baptized members who do not profess saving faith; continue as members & may baptize their children
Increase Mather*
Modern Presbyterian**
only the children of visible saints
visible saints
(profession of saving faith)
if fail to profess saving faith when an adult, then dropped from membership (no non-communicant adult members)
John Green, Increase Mather*, OPC, PCA
Baptist
visible saints
(profession of saving faith)
visible saints
(profession of saving faith)
none
2LBCF adherents, Benjamin Keach, Isaac Backus

*At first, Increase Mather opposed the Half-Way Covenant, but when challenged, he could not reconcile his opposition with the practice of infant baptism, so he embraced and began to defend the Half-Way Covenant. He later argued against Stoddard’s practice.

**I am not sure how best to label this position

Further Reading:

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