Godfathers, Calvin, and Knox...

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In the comments section, "Pastor TA" asks a good question: Why does a PCA covenant child have a godfather?

David and I have always been very close to our cousin, John DeWalt, who never had children of his own. Since Mary Lee gave birth to Michal at home three days after Christmas, John was able to hold Michal in his arms within minutes of her birth. It was love at first sight and John, also a Presbyterian, asked if he could be Michal's godfather? Of course we said "yes."

What a godfather he's been--a gift from God in every way! He's challenged Michal's thinking, cultivated her creativity, pushed her academically, helped her financially, preached to her, given her regular Scripture memorization assignments, sent her gifts (including his old MR2), prayed with and for her ...and the list goes on. Michal heard from John by mail at least once a week throughout her childhood, and she saw him in person usually twice a year. (John often joined the extended Bayly family for our Christmas celebrations and summer vacations).

Still, I'd been taught well enough to have twinges of conscience over Michal having a godfather. Then I purchased a set of Calvin's letters and came across the following response by Calvin to a letter he'd received from John Knox on 27 August 1559 inquiring "whether it be lawful to admit to the sacrament of baptism the children of idolaters and excommunicated persons before their parents have testified their repentance."

Here's Calvin's response...

Here's Calvin's response:

Geneva, 7th November, 1559

If I answer your letter, most excellent brother, later than you expected, your fellow countryman who brought it to me will be the best witness that laziness was not the cause of my delay. You yourself know also how seldom a suitable opportunity of writing to you occurs, because in the disturbed state of affairs all access to your country is difficult. It was a source of pleasure, not to me only but to all the pious persons to whom I communicated the agreeable tidings, to hear of the very great success which has crowned your labors...

Respecting the questions of which you ask for a solution, after I had laid them before my colleagues, here is the answer which we unanimously resolved to send. It is not without reason that you inquire whether it be lawful to admit to the sacrament of baptism the children of idolaters and excommunicated persons before their parents have testified their repentance. For we ought always to be carefully on our guard that the sanctity of this mystery be not profaned, which it certainly should be if it were promiscuously administered to aliens, or if any one received it without having such sponsors as may be counted among the legitimate members of the church. But as in the proper use of baptism the authority of God is to be considered, and his institution ought to derive its authority from certain conditions, one of the first things to be considered is who are the persons that God by his own voice invites to be baptized.

Now God's promise comprehends not only the offspring of every believer in the first line of descent, but extends to thousands of generations. Whence it has happened that the interruption of piety which has prevailed in Popery has not taken away from baptism its force and efficacy. For we must look to its origin, and the very reason and nature of baptism is to be esteemed as arising from the promise of God. To us then it is by no means doubtful that an offspring descended from holy and pious ancestors, belong to the body of the church, though their fathers and grandfathers may have been apostates. For just as in Popery it was a pernicious and insane superstition, to steal or forcibly abduct their children from Jews or Turks, and forthwith to have them baptized; so likewise, wherever the profession of Christianity has not been altogether interrupted or destroyed, children are defrauded of their privileges if they are excluded from the common symbol; because it is unjust when God, three hundred years ago or more, has thought them worthy of his adoption, that the subsequent impiety of some of their progenitors should interrupt the course of heavenly grace. In fine, as each person is not admitted to baptism from respect or regard to one of his parents alone, but on account of the perpetual covenant of God; so in like manner, no just reason suffers children to be debarred from their initiation into the church in consequence of the bad conduct of only one parent. In the mean time we confess that it is indispensable for them to have sponsors. For nothing is more preposterous than that persons should be incorporated with Christ, of whom we have no hopes of their ever becoming his disciples. Wherefore if none of its relations present himself to pledge his faith to the church that he will undertake the task of instructing the infant, the rite is a mockery and baptism is prostituted.

But we see no reason for rejecting any child for whom a due pledge has been given. Add to these considerations that the manner of proceeding adopted by a church now arising from its ruins, and that of one duly formed and established are two very different things. For whilst a church is being composed out of that horrible state of dispersion, since the form of baptism has prevailed through a long series of ages down to our times, it is to be retained, but with the progress of time the abuses which have crept in are to be corrected, and the parents forced to present their children themselves and become the first sponsors. For if in the first commencements an absolute perfection is severely exacted, it is greatly to be feared that many laying eagerly hold of this pretext will continue to wallow in their corruptions.

We confess indeed that we should not attach so much importance to anything as to swerve even a hair's breadth from the line prescribed to us by God; but we imagine we have demonstrated in a few words that if we exclude from baptism those whom we have had proofs of having been domesticated, as it were, in the church, the exclusion would be too rigorous. In the mean time; therefore, waiting till greater progress have been made, and discipline have gained strength, let children be admitted to baptism on the condition we have mentioned, viz: that their sponsors engage that they will make it their business to have them brought up in the principles of a pious and uncorrupted religion. Though in the mean time we do not deny, that idolaters, as often as children are born unto them, should be sharply admonished and stirred up to devote themselves truly to God, as also excommunicated persons to be reconciled to the church....

(Calvin's Lat. Corresp., Opera, ix. P. 201; Calvin, John. Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters vol. 7; edited by Henry Beveridge. Edmonton, Canada: pp. 73-76.)

Now of course I don't intend my publishing Calvin's response here as an underhanded way of starting an argument with you dear Baptist brothers and sisters concerning the teaching of Scripture that households are to be baptized, and not just individuals. Nor do I wish to oppose my own denominational standards which require "now that greater progress has been made," as Calvin put it above, that a child be presented for baptism by at least one believing parent.

Still, I found Calvin's discussion of the benefits a godly "sponsor" could provide for a covenant child fascinating, and Mary Lee and I have clearly witnessed the many ways even believing parents and their children might benefit from such sponsorship. Now, looking back, we see how good our Heavenly Father was to Michal--but really, to our whole family--by sending Cousin John to us to be Michal's sponsor. Or as we call him, her "godfather."