In the late 1980s a debate arose within the PCA that has troubled Presbyterians for centuries, namely is Roman Catholic Baptism valid, or should we baptize someone who was sprinkled in a Roman Catholic Church when we admit them to membership in a PCA church? In 1987 the PCA majority report of the Ad Hoc committee appointed to study the validity of certain baptisms determined that Roman Catholic baptism was indeed invalid, and thus no true baptism at all. This report was prepared by Frank M. Barker, Jr., Carl W. Bogue, Jr., George W. Knight, III, Chairman, and Paul G. Settle so it represented a fairly wide diversity of views within the PCA. They noted that the American Presbyterians in their GAs of 1790 and 1835 had determined that the Roman Catholic Church (hereafter RCC) was an apostate organization, and therefore no part of the true church. The almost unanimous opinion of the Old School GA of 1845 was also that being no part of the true church, the RCC could not administer a valid baptism.
If we were to go against the opinion of prior Old School Presbyterians by contending that the baptism of the RCC is valid, most modern Presbyterians would be put in the exceedingly odd position of admitting that they would not receive a member of the RCC into one’s own church by letter of transfer, because they judge them not to be members of a true church, but that they would acknowledge that their baptism, the sign and seal of entrance into the visible church, was valid. In fact, this silly situation would be only heightened by the fact that we specifically do not allow members of the RCC to come to Lord’s Supper because we do not consider them to be members in good standing of an evangelical church. In short in everything we do, we deny the RCC to be a part of the visible church. So to acknowledge their baptism as valid would be impossibly inconsistent – it simply has no possible foundation other than the highly suspect argument, “well the Reformers didn’t repudiate RCC baptism.”
Differences have arisen in the past between American and British Presbyterianism. For instance, most American Presbyterians confessionally uphold the principle of the spirituality of the church, deny Constantinianism, and do not acknowledge that the Civil Magistrate has the power to prosecute for heresy, maintain the order of the church, call synods and so forth. They changed their version of the WCF to reflect that belief. Although I am originally from Britain myself, I happen to believe that this change better reflects the true teaching of the Bible and that the 1648 version of the Westminster Standards reflected not the teaching of the bible regarding the civil magistrate, but the lingering presence of Constantinianism within the church of Christ. So too, I believe that the overwhelming decision of the 1845 Old School GA (which I will include below) better reflects the true teaching of the bible regarding baptism and as such is an improvement. It reflects the reality of the present situation, rather than that which existed during the life of Calvin, a fact the PCA majority report rightly brings to light:
“One of the problems remaining is the fact that John Calvin resisted the urging of the Anabaptists that he, having been baptized by the Roman Catholics, should be (re)baptized (Institutes 4.15.16-18). His response must be understood in terms of the uniqueness of the situation and not wrongly generalized. He, of course, resisted the Anabaptists’ desire to have him repudiate his infant baptism and receive baptism as an adult believer. The effect that this situation had upon him can be seen in his insisting that Paul did not really baptize the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus and in his insisting that the baptism of John the Baptist is Christian baptism. This insistence, contrary to the text of the Scriptures, is so that he can assert that those were not “re baptisms” at all in opposition to the Anabaptists. The denomination in which Calvin was baptized was a church in flux, and coming to but not yet beyond the crossroads (cf., Institutes 4.2.11). It is not yet the church of the counter-reformation, the Council of Trent and its anathemas on the doctrine of justification by faith alone (see H. J. Schroeder, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, “Sixth Session, Decree Covering Justification” and particularly “Canon 9,” “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.”) That pre-Reformation church in flux is the church in which Calvin and many of the other Reformation believers had been members. Thus Calvin and the church of today stand at different vantage points in evaluating the Roman Catholic Church, i.e., the church of his infancy, the pre-reformation church, and the Roman Catholic church post-reformation and post Council-of-Trent. The analogy could be drawn between certain congregational churches in New England before and after the transition to Unitarianism.” [PCA, (Majority) REPORT OF THE STUDY COMMITTEE ON QUESTIONS RELATING TO THE VALIDITY OF CERTAIN BAPTISMS]
In any event here is the decision of the 1845 Old School Presbyterian GA which the 1987 report referenced:
“Because, since baptism is an ordinance established by Christ in his Church, (Form of Gov., chap. vii; Matt. xxviii. 19, 20,) and is to be administered only by a minister of Christ, duly called and ordained to be a steward of the mysteries of God, (Directory, chap. viii, sec. 1.) it follows that no rite administered by one who is not himself a duly ordained minister of the true Church of God visible, can be regarded as an ordinance of Christ, whatever be the name by which it is called, whatever the form employed in its administration. The so-called priest of the Romish communion are not ministers of Christ, for they are commissioned as agents of the papal hierarchy, which is not a Church of Christ, but the Man of Sin, apostate from the truth, the enemy of righteousness and of God. She has long lain under the curse of God, who has called his people to come out from her, that they be not partakers of her plagues.
“It is the unanimous opinion of all the Reformed churches, that the whole papal body, though once a branch of the visible church, has long since become utterly corrupt, and hopelessly apostate. It was a conviction of this which led to the reformation, and the complete separation of the reformed body from the papal communion. Luther and his coadjutors, being duly ordained presbyters at the time when they left the Romish communion, which then, though fearfully corrupt, was the only visible church in the countries of their abode, were fully authorized by the word of God, to ordain successors in the ministry, and so to extend and perpetuate the Reformed churches as true churches of Christ: while the contumacious adherence of Rome to her corruptions, as shown in the decisions of the Council of Trent, (which she adopts as authoritative,) cuts her off from the visible Church of Christ, as heretical and unsound. This was the opinion of the Reformers, and it is the doctrine of the Reformed churches to this day. In entire accordance to this is the decision of the General Assembly of our Church, passed in 1835, (See Minutes of General Assembly, vol. 8, p. 33) declaring the Church of Rome to be an apostate body.
“The decision by the Assembly of 1835 renders the return of a negative to the inquiry proposed by the Presbytery of Ohio indispensable on the ground of consistency; unless we be prepared to admit, in direct contradiction to the standards of the Presbyterian Church, that baptism is not an ordinance established by Christ in his Church exclusively and that it may be administered by an agent of the Man of Sin, an emissary of the prince of darkness; that it may be administered in sport or in blasphemy, and yet be valid as though administered by a duly commissioned steward of the mysteries of God.
“Nor can it be urged that the papal hierarchy is improving in her character, and gradually approximating to the scriptural standard. She claims to be infallible; her dogmas she promulgates as the doctrines of heaven; and she pronounces her heaviest anathema against any and every man who questions her authority, and refuses to bow to her decisions. She cannot recede from the ground she has assumed. She has adopted as her own, the decisions of the Council of Trent, which degrade the word of God; which claim equal authority for the Apocrypha as for the New Testament; and which declare the sense held and taught by holy mother church, on the authority of tradition and of the Fathers, to be the true and only sense of Scripture. All who deny this position, or who question her authority, she denounces with the bitterest curses.
“She thus perverts the truth of God; she rejects the doctrine of justification by faith; she substitutes human merit for the righteousness of Christ; and self-inflicted punishment for gospel repentance: She proclaims her so-called baptism, to be regeneration, and the reception of the consecrated wafer in the eucharist, to be the receiving of Christ himself, the source and fountain of grace, and with him all the grace he can impart. Is this the truth? Is reliance on this system, true religion? Can, then, the papal body be a Church?
“The Church, (i.e. the church visible,) as defined in our standards, is the whole body of those persons, together with their children, who make profession of the holy religion of Christ, and of submission to his laws. (Form of Gov. chap. ii, sec. 2) As certainly then, as the dogmas and practices of papal Rome are not the holy religion of Christ, must it be conceded, that the papal body is not a Church of Christ at all; and if not, then her agents, be they styled priest, bishops, archbishops, cardinals or pope, are not ministers of Christ in any sense; for they have no connection with his true visible Church; and not being true ministers of Christ, they have no power to administer Christian ordinances, and the rite they call baptism, is not, in any sense, to be regarded as valid Christian Baptism.
“Further, by the perverted meaning they affix, and the superstitious rites they have superadded to the ceremonies they perform under the name of baptism and the eucharist, the symbolical nature and true design of both the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper are lost sight of and utterly destroyed, – so that, could we by any possibility assign to her the name of a church, she would still be a church without the two grand ordinances of the gospel: she neither administers Christian baptism, nor celebrates the supper of our Lord.
“Moreover, since, by the 11th canon of the Council of Trent, she declares the efficacy of her ordinances to depend upon the intention of the administrator, no man can know with certainty that her form of administration in any ordinance is not a mere mockery: no consistent papist can be certain that he has been duly baptized, or that he has received the veritable eucharist: he cannot know, that the priest who officiates at his altar is a true priest, nor that there is actually any one true priest, or any one prelate rightly consecrated in the whole papal communion. The papal hierarchy has by her own solemn act shrouded all her doings in uncertainty, and enveloped all her rites in hopeless obscurity. Even on this ground alone, the validity of her baptism might safely be denied.
“Nor is the fact that instances now and then occur of apparent piety in the members of her communion, and of intelligence, zeal, and conscientiousness in some of her priests, any ground of objection against the position here taken by this Assembly. The virtues of individuals do not purify the body of which they are members. We are to judge of the character of a body claiming to be a church of Christ, – not by the opinions or practices of its individual members, but by its standards and its allowed practices. Bound as he is by the authority of his church, – and that on pain of her heaviest malediction, – to understand the Scriptures only in the sense in which his church understands and explains them, a consistent papist cannot receive or hold the true religion, or the doctrines of grace. If he does, he must either renounce the papacy, or hypocritically conceal his true sentiments, or he must prepare to brave the thunders of her wrath. True religion and an intelligent adherence to papal Rome are utterly incompatible and impossible. The Church and the papacy are the repelling poles of the moral system.
“Difficulties may possibly arise in individual cases. It may not be easy at all times to say whether an applicant for admission into the Church of Christ has, or has not been baptized: whether he has been christened by a popish pastor or not. In all such doubtful cases the session of a church must act according to the light before them. But it is safer and more conducive to peace and edification, to embrace a well established principle for our guidance, and act upon it firmly in the fear of God, leaving all consequences with him than to suffer ourselves, without any fixed principles, to be at the mercy of circumstances.
“While some other churches may hesitate to carry out fully the principles of the Reformation, in wholly repudiating popish baptism, as well as the popish mass, we, as Presbyterians, feel bound to act on the principle laid down by our Assembly, so long ago as 1790, (see Digest, pp. 94, 95,) that, so long as a body is by us recognized as a true church, are her ordinances to be deemed valid, and no longer.
“In 1835 the Assembly declared the papacy to be apostate from Christ, and no true church. As we do not recognize her as a portion of the visible Church of Christ, we cannot, consistently, view her priesthood as other than usurpers of the sacred functions of the ministry, her ordinances as unscriptural, and her baptism as totally invalid.”
Please click on the link below for an in-depth examination of this subject by GPTS seminary professor Dr. C.N. Willborn: