Sunday, February 26, 2006

Paedobaptism, Gregory Nazianzen, and Owen-itus

From Jason Engwer:

Paul Owen has written a response to my comments yesterday on infant baptism. He doesn’t address most of what I discussed, but he does address the views of Gregory Nazianzen.

I wrote a response to Accolyte4236 on this subject earlier today, and some of my points there are relevant to what Paul Owen argues in his latest post. I won’t repeat what I said in response to Accolyte4236, but will instead link any interested reader to that thread

However, Paul does make one point in his post that I don’t address in my response to Accolyte4236. He cites chapter 29 of Gregory’s Oration 40. Here’s what Paul wrote:

“The vast difference between Gregory’s position and modern Baptist theology can easily be seen by looking at the next section (40.29), where his objector appeals to the example of Jesus, who was baptized as an adult at thirty years of age. The Anabaptists whom Calvin opposed used the same exact argument (Institutes, 4.16.29). Gregory rejects this attempt to limit baptism to those who have come to an age of maturity based on the example of Jesus.”

As I explained earlier, a distinction has to be made between infant baptism and child baptism. A child can be a believer. I don’t object to child baptism if the child is a believer. Nothing in chapter 29 of Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration contradicts what I believe. And nothing in the section of Calvin’s Institutes that Paul Owen cites refutes what I’ve said. I don’t claim that Jesus’ baptism at age 30 is a disproof of infant baptism, nor is any advocate of believer’s baptism obligated to use such an argument.

In chapter 29 of his Oration, Gregory is responding to people who object to “hurrying” baptism. I’ve never made such an objection, nor does a believer’s baptism position require it. I would never argue that a believer can postpone baptism because Jesus wasn’t baptized until around age 30. I would agree with Gregory in rejecting such an argument.

But even if I had disagreed with Gregory on this subject, I wasn’t citing Gregory because I agree with him on every point. I was citing him against the concept of the catholicity of infant baptism. As I explained to Accolyte4236, the reason why some infants would be baptized if they were nearing death was because they hadn’t been baptized earlier. It was a rejection of general infant baptism that led to the situation of baptizing some infants when they were near death.

When Gregory Nazianzen recommends waiting until an age of understanding before baptizing children, with exceptions only in cases of impending death, that’s not the concept of infant baptism commonly advocated today, nor is it the position Paul Owen described in his initial article. Rather, Paul referred to baptism as something that includes children in the Christian society. Surely he wasn’t suggesting that only children about to die should be included. To the contrary, Paul wrote:

“Within Reformational theology, the Church is a visible kingdom of God on earth, a real society in the world, with a concrete relation to the rulers of the land (much like in ancient Israel). You can therefore enter this society objectively through the sacrament of baptism, just as a Jewish child was recognized as the object of God’s covenant promises to Israel in circumcision (Gen. 17). Water baptism is not viewed as a seal of God’s covenant and promise only to the person who has ‘genuine’ faith (as in all forms of Baptist theology); rather it is a seal of God’s promise to any person in the land who professes the Christian faith, and to their children (though it still requires a genuine faith, which works through love, in order to be a blessing)….Many dissenting Anabaptist martyrs shed their blood because of their unwillingness to accept the validity of infant baptism, tied as it was to the Reformational view of the relation between the Catholic Church and the larger society.”

Is Gregory Nazianzen’s position consistent with “the Reformational view of the relation between the Catholic Church and the larger society”? Paul Owen refers to baptizing all infants, not just infants who seem to be near death.

If you reread Paul’s original article, you’ll see that he repeatedly mentions the theme of a Christian society, with the inclusion of infants, as quoted above. Yet, in his response to me, he tells us that Gregory Nazianzen’s position is acceptable, a position in which all children would go unbaptized initially, with only a minority later being baptized if they seemed to be near death. Does Gregory’s concept of baptizing dying infants fulfill Paul Owen’s desire for including all infants in a Christian society by means of a baptism that’s comparable to circumcision? No.

Here’s what Paul wrote about Ergun Caner in his original article:

“Because Caner rejects the connection between the Church and the earthly kingdoms of this world (seeing only the local church, separated from the world, as a valid earthly expression of Christ’s kingdom), and because he suspends the validity of the sacramental symbol upon the sincerity of the individual’s own commitment to God, the Reformational view of the Church is inconceivable to him. He does not recognize a true visible kingdom of Israel on earth, within which is embedded the invisible Israel of election (per Romans 9). Instead, he can only think in terms of people who have a ‘credible’ profession of faith, and so are conditionally recognized as members of the local church if they are immersed in water, provided they do not disqualify themselves by open sin and apostasy.”

I don’t want to defend Caner’s views or Paul’s representation of those views. If Caner believes what Paul describes in his article, then I disagree with Caner. However, part of what Paul criticizes Caner for is applicable to Gregory Nazianzen (and many other people of the patristic age). Gregory wanted it to be normative to baptize children only after they had matured to an age of understanding. Gregory did believe that there’s some similarity between circumcision and baptism, but he didn’t make the circumcision/baptism parallel that Paul Owen and other advocates of infant baptism have made.

Gregory and some other church fathers weren’t baptized until adulthood, despite having Christian parents. We know, not just from Tertullian and Gregory Nazianzen, but from a large number of sources, that a variety of views existed on the subject of whether to baptize infants, and the credo-baptist position was among those views. As I said earlier, given how much the sources of the first two centuries discuss baptism, the absence of any discussion of infant baptism seems to be best explained by either infant baptism’s nonexistence or the rarity of it. Though a source like Justin Martyr isn’t as explicit in opposing infant baptism as a source like Tertullian, the testimony of the pre-Tertullian sources does lean in the credo-baptist direction. Later sources, like Gregory Nazianzen, held a variety of views. I don’t think that Gregory’s belief in baptizing dying infants (a situation that wouldn’t have arisen if the infants had been baptized earlier) fulfills Paul Owen’s original standard of an Israel/church parallel that places all infants in a Christian society by means of baptism.

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