Baptismal Promise and Education
Art 53 of our Church Order has as heading the words "Baptismal Promise and Education". I wish to look at the Scriptural principles that lie behind this article.
The father in the Netherlands, in the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, saw need to reform the existing schools. What was taught at these schools, they felt, had to be changed because various of the teachers were "papist and other heretics (i.e., anabaptist) or they sleep or are useless" (i.e., poorly trained), with as result that "the youth become corrupted". The reformed churches, accordingly, gave instruction to ministers to see to it that there were Godly teachers in the schools.
In the nineteenth century again there was need for the fathers to concern themselves with the education given to their children at the schools of the land. The principles of the Enlightenment had penetrated into the schools of Holland to such an extent that whatever Christian education remained in the schools was to stand above the divisions existing within Christendom. Hence there was no room anymore in the existing (state) schools for instruction in (accordance with) the Canons of Dort. The fathers reacted to that state-of-affairs by establishing schools where the entirety of Scripture impacted on what the children were taught. In line with that principle, the fathers who migrated to Australia nearly half a century ago were not content to send their children to any of the existing day schools; they instead saw need to establish separate schools.
That brings us to the big question of this instalment: why were the fathers of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries so dissatisfied with the education offered at the existing schools that they did something about it? Why did our fathers when they migrated to Australia set up their own schools? That question is so critically important if we are to retain the schools we've inherited from an older generation.
It's to be clear in our minds first of all that our children are in no way of themselves different from any other child born down the street or on the far side of the globe. Each and every child is "conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation" (as the Form for Baptism puts it). That reality places our children on a level with the children of all others; they are neither better nor worse, neither more worthy nor less worthy than any other child. That in turn means that our children have no more of a right to reformed education than does any other child.
Yet our children are different – why? – because of something in God. Yes, our children share a common depravity with every other child in Australia, but God was graciously pleased to lay claim specifically to these children, not those. It is significant that God said to Abraham: "I will establish My covenant between Me and you and" – not Abimelech or some other neighbour, but between Me (on the one hand) and "you and your descendants after you" (on the other). Children, specific children were included by God in the covenant He made with Abraham, children of God's choosing. These specific children God in His good pleasure has set in Jesus Christ into His covenant..., while He did not do that with countless others.
Our children, then, did not become covenant children when they were born or were baptised. Rather the opposite: it's because God claimed a particular child for Himself in His covenant that He, in love for that child, entrusted it into the care of believing, Godly parents (cf Ps 139:16). God does not only give children to parents; He also gives parents to children. In His almighty power He could give covenant children to heathen parents, but He does not normally do that; Father's care for His own is too gracious for that. Children do not become covenant children because they are born to Christian parents; they're rather born to Christian parents because they are already covenant children. That also explains why baptism does not change a child's identity. Through baptism a child doesn't become a covenant child; baptism is rather a sign and seal of what the child already is, viz, a sinner set by God in Jesus Christ into His gracious covenant.
It follows that this mercy from God's side to the child gives to the parents of a covenant child a privileged responsibility. To be entrusted with one of God's children is distinctly a wonderful privilege; there's a reason why the Scriptures call blessed, happy the person whom God makes mother (and father) of His little ones (cf Ps 115:12ff; 127:3ff; 128:30.)
But the gift of a covenant child involves more than a privilege; implicit in the gift is also a responsibility. Specifically, it is for parents of God's covenant children to show their children who their Father in heaven is. After God told Abraham that he would receive a special child, one claimed by God in the covenant, God said of Abraham that he was to "command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice" (Gen 18:19). Similarly, Moses instructed the parents of Israel before they entered the Promised Land never to forget any of the deeds or commands of the Lord but rather to "teach them to your children and your grandchildren..., that they may learn to fear (God) all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children" (Deut 4:90.) In fact, the parents of Israel were told to "teach (these words) diligently to your children, and (you) shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deut 6:60.)
Again: God commanded parents to teach their children His ways not so that these children might become children of God; the parents of Israel were commanded to teach their children God's ways because these children already were children of God. It's their distinct identity as children of God by covenant for Jesus' sake that gives to parents the responsibility to show their children "around the clock" (Deut 6:60) who their Father in heaven is.
This is the principle operative behind the third question of the Form for the Baptism of Infants:
Third, do you promise as father and mother to instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he (she) is able to understand, and to have him (her) instructed therein to the utmost of your power?
Parents are asked to confess that the particular child they carry in their hands is not so much their own, but rather God's child, and hence in need of special training and attention. This is equally the principle by which the fathers operated in days gone by. The fathers knew: the special identity of their children as God's children (a fact they recognised when they presented their children for baptism) demanded special treatment for these children, special treatment at home, at church and at school – "around the clock". Because of who these children are, the parents in the sixteenth and nineteenth century took the action they did. Their distinct identity as God's children prevented the parents from submitting these offspring to the instruction of "papists and other heretics" in the sixteenth century, prevented the parents of the nineteenth century from submitting their children to teachers who taught according to the principles of the Enlightenment. Equally, appreciation for that same distinct identity drove the fathers in Australia to initiate their own John Calvin schools.
We conclude: very rightly has our Church Order in the past connected baptism to education:
The consistory shall see to it that the parents, to the best of their ability, cause their children to be given education which is in harmony with the doctrine of the Church as they promised at the Baptism.
That example of the fathers in the past, motivated as it was by the Scriptural doctrine of the covenant, remains for us today to appreciate still.