Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Alleged Catholicity Of Infant Baptism

Paul Owen has posted another response to me, as an update of his earlier article (scroll down after going here). The update consists of one paragraph, and that paragraph addresses Gregory Nazianzen, not any of the other sources I discussed.

Paul once again asks if Baptists would agree with Gregory's position. As I explained earlier, that isn't the subject I was addressing. I was addressing whether Paul Owen agrees with Gregory's position. And he doesn't. He agrees with a portion of Gregory's position, namely the baptizing of dying infants, but he disagrees with what Gregory considered normative, and he disagrees with the concept of waiting until an infant is dying before baptizing that infant.

Paul's original article discussed an allegedly catholic acceptance of infant baptism, a concept he associated with the Reformation view of infant baptism, an Israel/church parallel, and the introduction of all infants into a Christian society. I gave some examples of patristic views on the subject that differ from Paul's view. His response so far has been to address only one of the sources I mentioned, Gregory Nazianzen, and he claims agreement with that source because Gregory believed in baptizing infants who were about to die. But Gregory also believed that other infants shouldn't be baptized, and the dying infants were being baptized as a result of their not having been baptized earlier.

Would somebody like Paul Owen have been baptized as an infant if he grew up in a home under the influence of Gregory Nazianzen? No. I would say that Gregory's agreements with Paul on this issue are less significant than his disagreements. In his original article, Paul mentioned more than just whether a person believes in ever baptizing infants under any circumstance. As I documented in my last reply to Paul, his original article puts the issue in a context of baptizing all children in an Israel/church parallel as an introduction to a Christian society. Gregory Nazianzen didn't hold such a position, and his belief in baptizing dying infants only fulfills one small portion of what Paul Owen was advocating. Other patristic sources contradicted Paul's view as well.

Would anybody reading Paul's original article come away with the impression that it's acceptable to consider it normative to not baptize infants, as long as you baptize infants who are near death? Would anybody reading that original article think that it's sufficient for Paul to ignore most of the evidence I cited while making one source's exception for dying infants the focus of his response?

In a 2002 article, the patristic scholar David Wright commented on infant baptism in general:

As an undergraduate I remember Professor Charlie Moule commenting on J. Jeremias’ Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (1960): that it contained ‘at least all the evidence’. Well, scholarship has not stood still since 1960. The careful statement in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) sums up a growing consensus: ‘While the possibility that infant baptism was also practised in the apostolic age cannot be excluded, baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents’. I am not aware of any poll among professional New Testament scholars, but my clear impression is that many, perhaps a clear majority, are at best highly uncertain about paedobaptism’s apostolic origins.

At the other end of the Patristic period, numerous writers could be cited in support of the judgement that in the West infant baptism did not become normative practice until some time after Augustine (d. 430), in the later fifth or the sixth or seventh centuries. The irony is that it became universal practice on the back of a theology that hardly any of us endorse today.

Between the times of the New Testament and Augustine, there is the little problem of the eclipse of infant baptism in the fourth century and into the fifth – far longer than Jeremias recognized, and longer than Saward’s ‘short period of reaction’. Virtually all, if not absolutely all, of the children of Christian parents about whose baptism we have information during this century were not baptized in infancy. They included most of ‘the golden age of the church fathers’....

Identifying the first offspring of Christians who was definitely baptized as a baby is not easy. Nestorius (born. around A.D. 381) may be a serious candidate.

More worryingly, Saward seems to assume that infant baptism either was or was not practised – all or nothing. But if one had to come up with a single verdict on the early church as a whole it could only be that dual practice held sway. In fact, we need a much more carefully differentiated evaluation of different kinds of evidence. Which (kinds of) infants were baptized, and when, and where?...

It is not only in the New Testament that the explicit evidence points to the baptism of responding believers. The same is true throughout vast reaches of Patristic writings.

There is very little theology of infant baptism in the early centuries until one gets to Augustine – and he started out not knowing why babies were baptized. (His godly mother Monnica showed no knowledge of it.) Shortly before Augustine began teaching the West that because of original sin babies dying unbaptized went to hell, John Chrysostom in the Greek East was telling catechumens that babies were not baptized for remission of sins because they had none to be remitted. (The many volumes of Chrysostom’s writings mention infant baptism only a couple of times.) If infant baptism had been universal practice from the first, it was for long a rite in search of a theology....

The historical debate is now far more open than it was in Jeremias’ day, not least because there is far less prejudice abroad among paedobaptists against believers-baptists and their baptism.

Jeremias’ critic, Kurt Aland (in ‘Did the early church baptise infants?’ 1961), argued that the practice of infant baptism did not start until the second century, but that it was theologically justified today. This seems to me a wiser position to adopt. I believe that a credible biblical-theological case can be advanced for baptizing the babies of Christians, but I doubt if one can be made to rest on historical grounds, among which I include New Testament texts allegedly attesting practice.

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