Sunday, September 09, 2012

Is Roman Catholic Baptism Valid?

RC Sproul Jr asks the question, “should we accept a Roman Catholic baptism as legitimate?

I was surprised at his response. For Baptists, it’s a no-brainer.

But some of the Reformers suggested yes, and even Charles Hodge (among others) have suggested that it is valid. Sproul notes, “many Protestants consider Rome to be a deeply flawed, chock-full-of-serious-errors true church and her baptisms irregular, but valid”. Along with Hodge and many Protestants, I have tended to accept this view. Roman Catholics [who frequently don’t know what they believe] may be Christians.

On the other hand, Sproul writes:
While I certainly understand this common view I do not embrace it. Baptism is, among other things, that sacrament by which one enters into the visible church. Rome, after the formal adoption of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, became an apostate church. That makes her in my judgment not merely a bad church, but a former church. A bad husband is one who is unfaithful. A rightly divorced husband, though he had had to be married in order to be unfaithful, is no longer a husband. If I am correct, being baptized into a local Roman Catholic church is not being baptized into a part of the visible church.

While the Trinity is a necessary, beautiful, critically important doctrine, while I believe that to deny it is to deny the faith, that it was the key issue for the first 500 years of the church after the ascension, this does not make it the alone necessary doctrine for a church to be a church. Any “church” for instance, that denies the resurrection of the body is not a church, and we should not accept their baptisms. In like manner, any “church” that says that anyone who teaches we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law should be damned, as Rome says in the sixth session of the Council of Trent, even if they affirm the Trinity, is not rightly administering the sacrament.

Which brings us to the Reformers. Though they may have addressed this and I missed it, it is important to remember that they are answering the question principally in a pre-Trent context. They are dealing with people who were baptized before Rome ceased to be a church, however weak they might have been up to that point. I don’t think Calvin or Luther or Zwingli, etc. needed to be baptized again because they were baptized when Rome was still a church.

Finally, the distinction between the Donatist issue and this issue is here- I am not saying that the unbelief of the one administering the sacrament makes it invalid. I am saying the unbelief of the institution into which one is being “baptized” makes it invalid.
It’s not that the baptizer disbelieves, but that the church is not a church.

Any thoughts on this?


  1. One issue is how the ecclesiastical category of "valid/invalid" baptism maps onto the Biblical theology and practice of baptism. We're framing the issue in terms and concepts supplied by Latin historical theology rather than Scripture.

    1. 1. I do believe that we should accept RC baptisms, although not for the reasons Charles Hodge argues. I don't share the assumption that it has to be a true visible church in order for true baptisms to occur. The promises of God are true, and that is what stands behind baptism. So it is entirely unnecessary to follow Hodge's lead and argue that Rome is kinda sorta a church. He tangles himself up in trying to give some minimal credentials to Rome, but this is a dead end. Our churches, following the reformers, hold that Rome is a false and apostate church. We don't allow their members who visit our churches to partake of communion. And we excommunicate those who convert to Rome.

      2. I do appreciate the difference in historical circumstance that RC Jr. mentions. Perhaps the policy of the early reformers is inappropriate in today's context, given that they were living in a time of transition in the life of the church, Rome was sinking while churches of the reformation were emerging, with many jumping ship. However, it should be noted that Rome was regarded as a false church fairly on in the reformation (see, for instance, the French Confession), well before the formality of Trent.

      3. RC Jr. says we are baptized into a church. That is true, with some qualification, but it is secondary. We are baptized into the Triune Name first and foremost. Baptism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of being a members of a true church.

      4. We have tended to accept baptisms that weren't done by churches at all, such as Campus Crusade baptisms. Of course we would not say this is the proper, biblically-prescribed way of administering baptism! All the same, we don't re-baptize such folks. We regard them as Christians as long as they make their way to a true church after conversion.

    2. Hi David -- I had read Hodge some time ago. Steve pointed me to Thornwell's article in the Princeton Review, where he responded to Hodge:

      I was baptized as an adult. Two of my kids who have joined our PCA church (14 and 16 now) took membership vows, but they did not have to get baptized.

      One thing that I did pick up on was that Sproul said that the RCC "ceased to be a church" and the dating of Trent. I had never considered it from that angle.

  2. Heck no, they are not valid. I've never understood why true Christians would accept baptisms done on God's enemies.

    1. Ha ha, you are a Baptist, and as I said, for Baptists, it's a no-brainer.

  3. John,

    See this:

    1. Hi AMR, thanks for the link. I'm glad to see Reformed folks discussing Roman Catholicism, although I wish the discussion would take place at a more sophisticated level. (The "regeneration goggles" thing was good for some comic relief, but I'd have liked to see more seminary professors in there and more theology).

      It seems to me that most Protestants have put Roman Catholicism into a closed box. They say "bad box" and don't ever really look at it until something like this comes up. Then when they open the box, they don't really know what's in there.

      I think these next few years, as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation looms, there will be a window of opportunity for Protestants to intelligently discuss this part of church history. I think we have a great opportunity ahead of us.