Review of Thornwell’s The Validity of the Baptism of the Church of Rome

BOOK REVIEW – The  Validity  of  the  Baptism  of  the Church of Rome, abridged  from J.H. Thornwell, and with a Foreword by John MacLeod. Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1991.  

Editor Tony Home asked me to review the above for a 1992 issue of The Presbyterian.   Apart from the Foreword, it’s an 87-page abridgement of Thornwell’s 1846 130-page monograph.

Previously, I myself replied to Thornwell’s arguments in full — in my own 540-page doctoral dissertation Rebaptism  Impossible!    There, I also dealt with the vital and almost pre-emptively important baptismal controversies of Stephen vs. Cyprian and Augustine vs. Donatism and Calvin vs. the Catabaptists — with none of which Thornwell deals.

Here, I avoid those controversies.   So too, the very vital subject of establishing the correct criteria for evaluating the validity of various ‘questionable’ baptisms  (such  as those  performed  by  Campbellite regenerationists, by Greek-Orthodox priests, by nurses in Romish hospitals, and even by Gnesio-Lutherans).   Here in this present review, I even avoid discussing the validity of baptisms performed by Romish priests themselves — and concentrate only on Thornwell’s baptismal arguments.

Even the World’s greatest living Thornwell scholar, the sympathetic Rev. Prof. Dr. Morton H. Smith of Greenville Theological Seminary in Thornwell’s native South Carolina, himself admits that apart from the present monograph Thornwell wrote hardly anything on the sacraments.   Sadly, magnificent as was the Confederate Thornwell’s resistance to the encroachments of Yankee aggression and of the Apocrypha and of "Church-Board-ocracy" — even he himself had indeed imbibed the arminianizing spirit of the ‘Great Awakening.’

This can be seen in Thornwell’s anti-covenantal misshaping of the Southern Presbyterian Church’s Book of Discipline (for which even his fellow Southerner the more famous Robert L. Dabney somewhat criticized him).   For Thornwell was theoretically a Semi-Baptist! Paedobaptists like "Thornwell," the Baptist David Kingdon rightly remarked in his own booklet Children of Abraham (Carey, Sussex, 1973, p. 64), are "as Hodge realised half-way to becoming Baptists!"

Indeed, Thornwell alarmingly described even covenantal babies as "enemies of Christ."   However, even before 1900 — also his own denomination had repudiated such an at least Anti-Calvinian if not in fact semi-manichaeism error.

The great strength of the monograph by Thornwell here under review, as MacLeod rightly points out, is his clear condemnation of the Romish doctrines of baptismal justification and regeneration.   Thornwell also heartily hammers the Pope of Rome, although not as hard as does the original version of the Westminster Confession 25:1-6 (which Thornwell once vowed to uphold).   This states how "that Antichrist…exalteth himself in the Church" — and not in some worse-than-Hinduistic temple, as Thornwell would suggest the Roman communion had become.

It is indeed true to say, as Westminster here declares, that Rome is a degenerated part of the visible catholick Church of Christ — though less degenerated, we would add, than some of the bodies currently in fellowship with the World(ly) Council of Churches! However, it is altogether against the Westminster Confession to assert — as did Thornwell’s 1845 General Assembly and as Thornwell himself did according to his 1873f editor and friend John Adger — "that the papal body is not a Church of Christ at all" (pg. vi).   And it was thoughtless of  Thornwell  recklessly  to  write  that  "Papal idolaters…give an idea of God from which an ancient Roman or a modern Hindoo might turn away in disgust" (pp. 76f).   Thornwell knew very little about Hinduism!

Yet unfortunately, this misperception colours Thornwell’s thoughts throughout his catabaptistic diatribe against Triune Baptism when administered in the Church of Rome. For he does not seek to invalidate baptisms performed in the baptismal-regenerationistic Eastern Orthodox Churches — which, with their submersionism etc., are baptismally further removed from Scripture than is Rome.

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