Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Catholicity of Infant Baptism v. The Owen

From comments

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


  1. Jason,

    Just focusing in on the quote from Gregory, I can't see how you could come away with the idea that Gregory is arguing against infant baptism in the passage or the oration. If you read the oration I don't see how anyone would comeaway with that idea. Gregory says that between 2-3 yrs of age is probably best and he permits it earlier in the case of sickness. What baptist church baptizes 2 year olds?

    Second, he is explicit in his advocation of infant baptism in sec. 17 where he writes,

    "Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Fearest thou the Seal on account of the weakness of nature? O what a small-souled mother, and of how little faith! Why, Anna even before Samuel was born promised him to God, and after his birth consecrated him at once, and brought him up in the priestly habit, not fearing anything in human nature, but trusting in God. You have no need of amulets or incantations, with which the Devil also comes in, stealing worship from God for himself in the minds of vainer men. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Guard."

    And Gregory endorses baptismal regeneration explicitly all over the oration.

    My guess is that you didn't read the oration but just picked some quote out of a secondary source.

  2. Acolyte4236,

    I've read the work of Gregory from which I quoted. I was discussing infant baptism, not baptismal regeneration. And, yes, I do approve of baptizing a two-year-old or three-year-old if that child gives sufficient indication of justifying faith. Even if I had disagreed with Gregory's age recommendations, how would that disagreement be inconsistent with what I said in the original post? I was addressing infant baptism, not the age at which we should baptize post-infancy children. Those are two different subjects.

    You said:

    "I can't see how you could come away with the idea that Gregory is arguing against infant baptism in the passage or the oration. If you read the oration I don't see how anyone would comeaway with that idea."

    Here's what Gregory wrote:

    "Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; 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? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated....But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. For this is how the matter stands; at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers." (40:28)

    Gregory explains that he wants a delay in baptism so as to allow the child to have faith, to have an awareness of the issues involved. Thus, when you say...

    "What baptist church baptizes 2 year olds?"'re misleading the readers. Gregory doesn't just give an age. He also explains that the child should be more mature than an infant, with some understanding of what's occurring.

    As I said in my initial post, we have to distinguish between child baptism and infant baptism. They aren't the same. Those who advocate believer's baptism don't deny that children can be believers.

    You write:

    "Second, he is explicit in his advocation of infant baptism in sec. 17"

    He recommends baptizing children, and he uses the example of Hanah's dedication of Samuel before Samuel was even born. (Gregory, like Samuel, had been dedicated to God by his parents prior to birth. However, despite having a bishop as his father and a Christian mother, Gregory wasn't baptized until adulthood.) But he goes on in chapter 28, which I cited, to explain that the children should be mature enough to have some understanding of what's happening. There's nothing in chapter 17 that compels us to read that chapter as a contradiction of chapter 28. In all likelihood, what Gregory intended was that baptism occur as early as possible within the qualifications he sets out in chapter 28.

    Gregory does, like some other sources of the patristic era, support what's commonly called emergency or clinical baptism. We see some of the earliest church fathers arguing that all deceased infants go to Heaven, but it was popular among some of the later fathers to argue that only baptized infants are saved. Thus, some parents would have a child baptized if there was reason to think that the child was near death. But the reason why such a child would be baptized near death was because he wasn't baptized earlier. It was a rejection of general infant baptism that led to the baptizing of some infants just before death. People like Paul Owen aren't arguing for only baptizing some infants, if they're near death.

    As I said previously, the church fathers held a variety of views on issues surrounding infant baptism, and sometimes the popular views of one generation would contradict the popular views of another generation. A second century church father would think that all deceased infants go to Heaven, while a fourth century father would think that only baptized infants do. Gregory Nazianzen held a mixture of views on infant baptism, combining some elements of earlier generations with other elements that were later developments.

  3. I'm not sure why a couple of early quotes at slight at variance with Orthodoxy is supposed to cause Orthodoxy such a problem. Tertullian was concerned about baptising infants because the sponsors might not fulfill their promise to bring the child up in Christ. No theological argument against baptism of children so much as a practical argument.

    As for the baptisms of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, perhaps someone can furnish the proof that their parents were Christians before their children attained an age of refusal?