Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Irenaeus And Infant Baptism

Paul Owen posted an article today arguing that the second century church father Irenaeus believed in infant baptism. None of the passages Paul cites refer to infant baptism, but Paul assumes that the practice is implied. In past responses to Paul, I've given some examples of Christians of the patristic era opposing his claims about infant baptism, and I've cited the patristic scholar David Wright commenting on the subject. Even if Irenaeus had believed in infant baptism, Paul's original assertions would still be false. But does the evidence suggest that Irenaeus believed in infant baptism?

Paul writes:

"In his treatise Against Heresies (II.22.4) he [Irenaeus] writes: 'He came to save all through means of Himself–all, I say, who through Him are born again to God–infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.' Irenaeus clearly believed that 'infants' in the Church were 'born again' to God, the same as children, youths and adults."


"Like all other Catholic Christians, he believed that the new birth was received through water baptism: 'And again, giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, He said to them, Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost' (Against Heresies, III.17.1). Cf. also Irenaeus: 'As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes' (cited by J. Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 164)."

In the first passage Paul cites, Irenaeus is addressing the claim that Jesus' public ministry lasted for only one year. This is from the well known section in Irenaeus where he incorrectly asserts that Jesus lived to be over 40 years old. Irenaeus is explaining that Jesus lived through every stage of life, including old age, which would result in His public ministry having lasted more than one year. Jesus experienced every stage of life, from infancy to old age, in order to save people from all age groups. The immediate context says nothing of the baptism of these people. Paul includes baptism by means of combining this passage in Irenaeus with what Irenaeus says elsewhere about baptism. But there's an assumption he's making in combining the two.

Would a belief in baptismal regeneration as normative require that every person regenerated is regenerated through baptism? No, advocates of baptismal regeneration will acknowledge some exceptions, such as the thief on the cross. Paul's assumption that Irenaeus believed that infants are born again through infant baptism is therefore possible, but unproven, at this point in the argument. Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw explain:

"It is rather pretentious to insist on substituting the notion of baptism every time a writer uses the term 'regeneration' unless the context clearly relates to baptism as such....[this passage in Irenaeus] merely tells us that the redeeming work of Christ extends to whatever person....The passage does not speak about the age when people were baptized." (Baptism In The Early Church [Webster, New York: Carey Publications, 2004], pp. 53, 55)

But we can take this a step further. Irenaeus is one of the fathers who commented on the issue of infant salvation, so we can examine those passages to see if he mentions infant baptism as part of the process. Irenaeus writes:

"And again, who are they that have been saved and received the inheritance? Those, doubtless, who do believe God, and who have continued in His love; as did Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, and innocent children, who have had no sense of evil." (Against Heresies, 4:28:3)

And elsewhere, concerning the Slaughter of the Innocents:

"For this cause, too, He suddenly removed those children belonging to the house of David, whose happy lot it was to have been born at that time, that He might send them on before into His kingdom; He, since He was Himself an infant, so arranging it that human infants should be martyrs, slain, according to the Scriptures, for the sake of Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of Judah, in the city of David." (Against Heresies, 3:16:4)

Irenaeus doesn't limit his comments in the first passage to children of believers, he says nothing of baptism, and he says nothing of the Bethlehem children being saved only because they had been circumcised. It seems that Irenaeus believed that all children who die in infancy are saved because of "innocence". There's no need to assume infant baptism in order to explain why Irenaeus would refer to Christ regenerating infants.

Paul also cites the following from Irenaeus:

"'And dipped himself,' says the Scripture, 'seven times in Jordan.' It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but it served as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: 'Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'" (Fragments, 34)

If Paul only intends this passage as another example of Irenaeus' belief in baptismal regeneration, then I have no objection. However, if Paul is suggesting that the reference to "new-born babes" is about infant baptism, then I reject that suggestion. Irenaeus is addressing Christians in general. Christians are born again. Regeneration is like becoming a spiritual infant, being born spiritually. This passage says nothing about infant baptism.

Nothing Paul Owen has cited from Irenaeus leads to the conclusion that he believed in infant baptism. To the contrary, it appears that Irenaeus believed in universal infant salvation, like other church fathers of the second century. Thus, the concern some later fathers had for baptizing infants in order to ensure their salvation apparently wouldn't have been a concern to Irenaeus. And when we look at the many passages in Irenaeus that explicitly address baptism, the baptism of infants is never mentioned. So, Paul has attempted to arrive at a conclusion of infant baptism by an indirect means, but, as I've shown above, the argument is inconclusive. There's no logical requirement that infants be baptized in order to be regenerated, and there are passages in Irenaeus in which he discusses infant salvation without any involvement of baptism.

It's significant that Paul Owen has to rely on such speculative reasoning in order to argue for infant baptism in the earliest centuries. It's not as if baptism and the issues related to it aren't discussed much in the earliest sources. They're discussed often in the gospels, Acts, the writings of Paul, The Didache, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, etc. Yet, the first explicit reference to the concept of infant baptism is found in Tertullian, who is writing against it.

It's also significant that Paul has so far chosen to ignore large portions of the evidence I've cited, including my citation of David Wright and his discussion of the conclusions of modern scholarship. Even in discussing the little evidence he's addressed so far, Paul has made some comments that aren't consistent with his original article. He claims that Tertullian and others who didn't want to baptize infants differed from Baptists in their motivations. But they wouldn't have to have all of the same motives as Baptists in order to be inconsistent with Paul's concept of the catholicity of infant baptism.

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