Born of Water and Spirit (3)

This is the third post in my series on the doctrine of regeneration.

Regeneration in Reformed theology

Although I want to go on to raise some questions about its formulation, it is a great merit of Scholastic Reformed Theology’s treatment of regeneration that it defended God’s initiative and sovereignty with dogged determination. Regeneration is not something I attain to by choosing to convert, but something God does to me.

There is a clear and acknowledged development in Reformed thought about the doctrine of regeneration. For the early reformers, notably Calvin, the word regeneration referred to, as Bavinck puts it, “a person’s total renewal that proceeds from faith” (Herman Bavinck). Calvin held that regeneration was constituted by repentance, and so encompassed sanctification. Later Reformed thinkers, however, distinguished a broad and a restrictive sense, and generally reserved the term regeneration for the latter. Regeneration came to single out a foundational “implantation of the spiritual life” (Bavinck), an initial, momentary transformation from which all else followed. As Witsius described it, “Regeneration is the hyperphysical act of God, by which the elect man who is spiritually dead is imbued with new, divine life, and that from the incorruptible seed of God’s Word, fecundated by the transcendent power of the Spirit”. This, as Voetius declared, “happens in an instant”.

The essential point to notice about this is that regeneration named a particular moment in a human life. This was essential for the Reformed understanding of the ordo salutis, the order of application of salvation to the individual. What we may describe as the “canonical” Reformed ordo was this:

Calling —> Regeneration —> Faith —> Conversion of will (repentance)

There was some flexibility about the relations of Repentance and Faith; but the situating of Regeneration before Faith and Repentance was definitive. This was held to be essential in order to preserve, against the Remonstrants and all forms of Pelagianism, a monergistic understanding of salvation, that is, the idea that salvation is entirely God’s initiative. God does not call in the Gospel and then wait for a response: he himself, by the Spirit, regnerates the heart and enables the human response of repentance and faith.

This understanding of regeneration made it easier to understand someone who “grew into” their faith. For regeneration always precedes conversion; and so it doesn’t matter if that happens by quite a long time. God can give new life to a child before they can believe and repent. Bavinck shows how this allowed the Reformed to have a more flexible attitude to the shape of the Christian life, and a thoroughly Christian understanding of education.

This was, however, complicated by the Reformed commitment to situating regeneration after calling. This was grounded in the desire to maintain a link between salvation and the Word, on the basis of which they rejected the Lutheran view of baptism as regenerative, in the sense that the sacrament effected the grace. But this left problems in relation to infant baptism. For in what sense could infants be held to be “called”? A range of solutions to this problem were adopted, none entirely satisfactorily. Most usually, thinkers spoke of some sort of “seed” of regeneration and deployed the concept of covenant to fill in for calling.

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