After referring to "the Catholic/Reformational doctrine of infant baptism", Paul Owen writes:
"This is why the rejection of infant baptism was seen as heresy–it strikes at the very nature of the Church, and its historical connection to the Catholic faith."
During the patristic era, some churches practiced infant baptism and some didn't. Men like Tertullian and Gregory Nazianzen spoke against the practice, while people like Cyprian and Asterius the Sophist advocated it. Some, like Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, weren't baptized until adulthood, despite having religiously active Christian parents. When counseling against infant baptism in the fourth century, Gregory Nazianzen expresses his view on the subject after writing of how somebody might ask:
"what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too?" (Oration 40:28)
In other words, not only did Gregory counsel against infant baptism, but he framed his addressing of the issue by suggesting that the question of whether to baptize infants was disputed. It was something about which people commonly asked.
With some of the early sources, the evidence is unclear. Baptism of children is discussed, but we can't always tell what their age was or the specifics of their circumstances. (A word translated as "infant" might be rendered as "child" in other places. The age of the person isn't always clear, even when a translator chooses to use an English word like "infant".) Some of the art in the catacombs, for example, is unclear as well. But we can say that the earliest explicit advocacy of infant baptism doesn't occur until the third century. The earliest source to explicitly address the subject is Tertullian, who speaks against the practice around the end of the second century or the beginning of the third. Prior to Tertullian, baptism is discussed often and in some depth, and infant baptism is never advocated. Rather, baptism is described as if only believers take part in it. Given the fact that multiple generations of Christians had lived and died during that time, it seems unlikely that infant baptism would so often go unmentioned in discussions of baptism if it was a common practice.
It should be noted, also, that even the sources who first advocated infant baptism did so for different reasons than the ones commonly cited by today's advocates. What we see in the fathers is an initial absence of infant baptism, followed by Tertullian's condemnation of it and a later advocacy of it. It was absent in some places and present in others, and those who did practice it had different reasons for it and modes of it. From such a background, how does a person arrive at the conclusion that not only is infant baptism apostolic, but it's even part of "catholicity", the rejection of which is "heresy"? By that sort of standard, large portions of the patristic church were heretical and outside of catholicism.
Often, people who speak of "tradition", "catholicity", "the church", etc. are irrationally selective in their appeal to such concepts. If an early Christian consensus on an issue runs contrary to what they believe, they disregard that consensus. But when they think that an early consensus agrees with them, they tell us of how unthinkable it would be to go against it, as if the consensus alone is a sufficient argument. In my experience, many of these people continue with their double standards even after having those double standards pointed out to them. The appeal to "catholicity", "tradition", etc. is more bark than bite. Even when their rhetoric is shown to not have much substance behind it, they continue to use the rhetoric. Some people have too much concern for labels and appearances and too little concern for substance.
# posted by Jason Engwer : 2/25/2006 6:37 PM