Witsius on Efficacy of Infant Baptism Help Needed

Discussion in 'Paedo-Baptism Answers' started by sc_q_jayce, Mar 26, 2018.

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  1. sc_q_jayce

    sc_q_jayce Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi everyone,

    For those who have read Witsius's On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism in the Case of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under the Covenant, I had a question that I hope someone can answer for me. This was published in the 2006 issue of Mid-America Journal of Theology, vol 17, pp. 121-190.

    The document was excellent and such an edification for really addressing Infant Baptism, but I found this particular thing that Witsius does throughout the end of the text that I am afraid I do not have any context in knowing about.

    Page 168, item LVI:

    "Thus far we have seen what those benefits are which are signified and sealed to elect infants in baptism. We have seen also in what relation these benefits stand to the rite of baptism. It now remains to be ascertained wherein consists the nature and efficacy of the sealing. On this head we maintain generally that as baptism is a sacrament, and a sacrament is a seal, and the use of a seal is to confirm and certify something, the efficacy of baptism consists in the confirming and certifying of promised grace. In truth, its whole efficacy is moral (moralis), to speak scholastically, and is altogether distinct from an efficacy real (reali) and physical (physica). It is well observed by Francis Burman in his Synopsis theologiae, "Nor do we acknowledge in the sacraments any other than a moral virtue, such as resides in signs and words - not such as can effect or produce anything, but only signifies and seals." That signifying and sealing is indeed altogether valid, and when legitimately used contains in itself a certain exhibition of the thing signified, but such an exhibition as is agreeable to the nature of sacraments."
    I feel like I'm missing something about this threefold-nature of the efficacy - the moral, the real, the physical. It seems like the author is pulling it from somewhere else and I'm afraid I'm not privy to this knowledge, so I am not sure what Witsius means by saying it is a moral efficacy vs a physical or real efficacy.

    If anyone can shed light on the meaning of these words and their origin I would appreciate it.
  2. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    See what follows the quoted section above:

    The opinion of the Remonstrants respecting the efficacy of the sacraments has been set forth in scientific language by their Apologist, (pages 243-44.)

    “There are,” he says, various ways of exhibiting and of sealing. There is a certain physical exhibition, in which something is exhibited, either as by an impression from a seal upon wax, or as by a mark on a vase, or as by a seal affixed to a deed, or as a barely concomitant sign, or as lying concealed under the forms of the sign—that is, to make the matter somewhat clearer, in which something is physically, so to speak, brought near, extended, distributed, either at the same time as, or in company with, or in connexion with, or through, or under, or in, or near, or round about, the signs.

    There is also a certain supernatural or miraculous exhibition, in which something unknown or doubtful is confirmed, stablished, and made sure, and so is exhibited to the mind as it were in a visible and tangible form. Of this nature are miraculous signs, prodigies, virtues transcending all natural strength.

    In fine, there is a certain sacramental, evangelical exhibition, in which, by means of certain signs, divine grace is represented, not in a distant or farfetched manner, nor is it dimly shewn as yet far distant, under types or shadows, or particular figures; but by which that grace, as if actually present, is set before the eyes so very clearly as to be almost palpable to sight and touch—so efficaciously that the mind cannot be more truly impressed by such signs, allowing the nature and inherent properties of signs and their significations to be preserved whole and entire.

    Now this third method of exhibition is unquestionably the method intended by the Remonstrants.”

    He afterwards adds, in illustration of this method, (page 245)
    “Perhaps it will be said that such an exhibition may be imagined, if the solemn and lawful use of the sacraments be regarded as a condition of God’s bestowing and exhibiting, as it were, in a sensible manner, some peculiar grace—viz., of God’s honouring with a sense of His special favour the person who uses these signs, according to Christ’s appointment, in the exercise of true faith, and uses them so dutifully that the very use and practice of them becomes, so to speak, the means of inducing greater alacrity and forwardness in obedience to God, and a more diligent prosecution of all the other parts of His service. Now this is what every Remonstrant will cordially admit.”​
  3. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I would take the distinction in this sense:
    1) The sacrament has no physical efficacy, meaning the ritual (the acts, words, or performer) or the substance of the instruments (water, bread wine) do not attach grace, either in themselves or to one subject under the ordinance. The sacrament is not efficacious for bringing God's grace near some man in the physical sense.

    2) The sacrament has no real efficacy, which is to say that neither the ritual nor the instruments does actually confer and promised spiritual blessing, really making one subject into a recipient of the grace represented or exhibited by the sacrament.

    The distinction between those two would be: the first sort of efficacy would simply "bear" the offering, or "place" the offering; it would "set things together." The second sort of efficacy would create "belonging," or create the state of (spiritual) affairs that are otherwise signified by the activity.

    Neither of these senses is proper to the Reformed interpretation of sacraments or the efficacy thereof.

    Moral efficacy in the sacraments has to do with truthful, declaratory power. The holy sacraments speak truly, being authorized and having true content. They also speak (or sign) for the Truthful One. The "power" behind the declaration is divine, so the sacrament is "efficacious" by virtue of Him who works according to their design. As the Spirit blows where he wills, he does not simply come near by invocation of some celebrant or by some human intention. That is NOT what the promise with the sign entails.

    And for the individual recipient, faith (and only faith, which is itself the gift of grace) lays hold of the grace offered on account of the sacramental occasion. The "reality" of the sacramental relation, the "belonging" is by faith alone.
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  4. sc_q_jayce

    sc_q_jayce Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks for highlighting that. I've read through that numerous times and still have trouble with what Burman is trying to say. (By the way, is Burman of the Remonstrandts or is he simply quoting them?)

    Burman notes extensively that there is a physical nature of the sacraments in which all the senses are applied so that we are able to tangibly see and understand the grace of God in such a way that they bring to our minds a deeper understanding and reality of the work of God than without them.

    Yet, it also seems that Witsius says afterwards that this can't be right because he then says "But as this kind of signifying and sealing, and sacramental exhibition, seems to require a certain knowledge of which infants are not capable, the question comes to be, of what use and efficacy is infant baptism?"

    In effect, Witsius is saying that these things that Burman brings up can't be right because they would be inapplicable for the infant being baptised? And as Reverend Buchanan mentioned after your post, what makes the efficacy is God's declaration on the believer/recipient, not anything in itself. The sign and seal giving a "real" or "physical" effect is at best secondary (Witsius: "Very just! Nor do I see what more an orthodox man could ask from them on this part of the subject."), and at worst ineffective.

    Let me know if I understood you correctly.
  5. sc_q_jayce

    sc_q_jayce Puritan Board Freshman

    The part I bolded in your response has been very helpful in helping me frame this part of the text. Thank you for that. Also the Moral efficacy part has been helpful, let me know if I understood you correctly in how I applied what you wrote to my response to Patrick.

  6. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable


    I have to run some errands and cannot respond in-depth now. Instead I will attach a nice translation (with footnotes, copy and paste capable, etc.) of Witsius' On The Efficacy And Utility Of Baptism In The Case Of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under The Covenant (translation by Marshall) for you that is more amenable to what I had quoted above. Burman is summarizing the opinions of the Remonstrants (see page 49 of the pdf in the attachment).

    Marshall's work contained his translation of Witsius and is worth obtaining:
    Popery In The Full Corn, The Ear, And The Blade; Or The Doctrine Of Baptism In The Popish, Episcopalian, And Congregational Churches; With A Defence Of The Calvinistic Or Presbyterian View

    Attached Files:

  7. sc_q_jayce

    sc_q_jayce Puritan Board Freshman

    Thank you! This is indeed the same document I have been reading from.
  8. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    In answer to the question about the author Witsius himself references, viz. Burman, let me try to explain W.'s purpose. He quotes one author whom he favors, referencing other parties (the Remonstrants) which in general are considered unorthodox (which is why I suppose he does not quote them directly); however, the utility of the reference is to establish a "baseline" of orthodox opinion--a baseline that is granted, "cordially admit[ted]" even by the heterodox (according to B.'s summary).

    If you were already clear on that, then at least some other reader may benefit.

    I will take Witsius' "seems" (in the final part which you quoted, the end of LVI.) in the sense that: whatever awareness or knowledge (non-propositional) an infant may be said to have, for the nature of it we say nothing definte. There is with him no "alacrity and forwardness in obedience to God, and a more diligent prosecution of all the other parts of his service,"--given our appreciation of an infant's limits--that we should say of certainty is related to the child's baptism as effect is to cause.

    He says in LVIII, there are advantages to the infant himself, especially after they have attained to such personal powers of his own mind that can reflect. In so saying, he's allowing that the rudiments of mature reflection were present beforehand, and also must be regarded as the essence of the advantage. In quoting Ps.22, he has in view not merely the remembrance of the older person, but also the quality of the hope that was the infant's. Insofar as it was genuinely spiritual, baptism should strengthen it.

    This quote seems to allude to some aspect of the mystery I have in other threads defended; so perhaps my view is conformable to his, yet we make peace with fairly Reformed alternatives. Witsius, MAJT p.184, (emphasis mine)

    from LXXV. ..."[sacraments] are appointed of God as means, in their very nature, peculiarly efficacious, which God may employ in order that something may be wrought in us. For the resemblance constituted between the sign and the thing signified, together with the divine appointment through which they acquire the power of signifying and sealing, attaches to them a very special influence in increasing grace, strengthening faith, confirming hope, and kindling the flame of charity. As God acts on the hearts of the elect not merely in connection with the preaching of the Word, but through the Word, so he acts through the sacraments according to that order and mode of action which is agreeable to their nature. Thus far, then, I attribute more efficacy to the sacraments than that learned man—although this is perhaps a matter of very little consequence."​
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