An article of mine on the subject of infant baptism and Reformation debates concerning the relationship between grace and the administration of the sacrament of baptism has just been published over on Reformation21.
In characterizing magisterial Reformed objections to the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism at the time of the Reformation, some commentators have often focused too narrowly upon the theme of baptismal efficacy. While firmly opposing notions of ex opere operato, few of the magisterial Reformers resisted the notion of baptismal efficacy as such, but rather insisted upon the necessity of faith for the reception and enjoyment of this efficacy, upon God’s freedom in the bestowal of his grace, and upon the Word-based character of the sacraments. If we mistakenly equate baptismal efficacy with an ex opere operato mode of efficacy, we are in danger of missing the fact that the magisterial Reformers presented a higher and more efficacious doctrine of baptism than their Roman Catholic interlocutors.It is at this juncture that the significance of the ‘when’ question should be recognized. The Roman Catholics related the grace of baptism to the performance of the rite itself. For them, the grace signified in baptism was a grace received through the performance of the rite. The answer to the ‘when’ question was ‘at the point of baptism itself.’ Yet the grace of baptism received through the ex opere operato performance of baptism–so powerfully efficacious at the time of the performance–swiftly lost its efficacy. The grace of baptism, once given, was radically at the mercy of the baptismal candidate’s subsequent behaviour. The Canons of Trent (Session XIV in particular) reveal that, the grace of baptism being easily forfeited by sinners who failed to persevere in it, it was necessary to supplement its grace with that of another sacrament–penance. Penance was the answer to the acute problem of post-baptismal sin and to the (temporally) limited efficacy of the grace of baptism. The result was the diminishment of baptismal grace within the sacramental economy: beyond giving an initial impetus, baptism was swiftly substituted for by other sources of grace.
Read the whole thing here.