Monday, February 27, 2006

Patristic Rejection Of Infant Baptism And Paul Owen's Catholicism

Paul Owen has written another response to me on the subject of infant baptism. His latest response is an improvement over the previous two in that instead of interacting with only one of the sources I cited, he now interacts with two. But he continues to ignore a lot of the other evidence I've discussed.

The issue I was addressing was infant baptism, specifically Paul Owen's claims about its catholicity here. The central issue isn't whether the sources in question made their judgments on infant baptism according to "Baptistic principles", as Paul puts it. I didn't argue that these people had the same beliefs as Baptists. To the contrary, I've said that there was a variety of views held, with the popular belief in one generation sometimes contradicting the popular belief of another generation. One church father would refrain from baptizing infants for one reason, and another would refrain for another reason. A source in one generation would support infant baptism with one line of reasoning, and a source of another generation would use a different line of reasoning. An example I mentioned earlier was the widespread belief in universal infant salvation among the earliest church fathers. Thus, they wouldn't have agreed with the belief of some later fathers who wanted to baptize infants because they thought that baptism was necessary for salvation. David Wright, the patristic scholar I cited in my last response to Paul, mentions the example of Augustine's disagreement with John Chrysostom on this issue. Some of the reasoning of these sources agrees with my reasoning. I agree with Tertullian about universal infant salvation, for example. I agree with Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen about the value of waiting until an age of maturity before baptizing. Etc. But I don't agree with every argument of every source that I cite. I was addressing whether Paul Owen's view of infant baptism is a catholic doctrine, as he claimed it was. I can cite people who rejected Paul's view without thereby claiming that I agree with those sources on every point.

I want to summarize the discussion about Gregory Nazianzen before moving on to Tertullian. Paul Owen wants to baptize every infant to make them part of a Christian society in an Israel/church parallel. Gregory Nazianzen wanted it to be normative to wait until an age of maturity before baptizing, but he allowed for an exception for infants who are dying. Paul keeps focusing on that exception. But Paul's partial agreement with Gregory doesn't change the fact that he also partially disagrees with him. Gregory's ideal of waiting for an age of maturity is more significant than an exception he allows in cases of early death. To make an exception for dying infants the focus of an analysis of Gregory, as Paul keeps doing, doesn't make sense.

Paul has also claimed, in his latest reply, that Gregory didn't expect the post-infancy children who are baptized to profess faith. But they would still be post-infancy children. And Gregory tells us that those children are at an age where they "begin to be responsible for their lives" (Oration 40:28). He wants them to "know the outlines" of the faith (Oration 40:28). He wants them to "be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament" (Oration 40:28). Surely Gregory wasn't thinking of children who would "be responsible" and "know the outlines" and "answer something about the Sacrament" while rejecting Christianity. Whatever Gregory had in mind, it wasn't Paul Owen's view of infant baptism. And saying that Gregory wasn't a Baptist doesn't change the fact that he also wasn't an adherent of Paul Owen's view.

Much of what Paul said in his original article about the Israel/church parallel and initiating all children into a Christian society would be applicable as criticisms of Gregory Nazianzen. The fact that Gregory avoids some of that criticism by baptizing dying infants doesn't change the fact that his ideal of waiting for an age of maturity falls under the criticism of Paul's original article.

Paul goes on to make an attempt at minimizing Tertullian's rejection of infant baptism. He writes:

"Tertullian does feel that it is unwise to baptize infants. But this is because of his somewhat legalistic view of the gravity of post-baptismal sin."

Again, keep in mind that the issue here is whether Tertullian supports Paul Owen's claim of catholicity for infant baptism. The issue isn't whether Tertullian was a Baptist.

Tertullian does mention post-baptismal sin, but that isn't the only factor he discusses. He also says that he wants the people baptized to be "able to know Christ" and to "know how to 'ask' for salvation, that you may seem at least to have given 'to him that asketh.'" (On Baptism, 18). Tertullian, like other patristic sources, had a variety of reasons for believing what he believed about infant baptism. Some of his reasons are ones Baptists agree with, and some aren't. But, again, the issue isn't whether Tertullian agreed with Baptists on all points.

Paul continues:

"Tertullian actually provides a clear testimony to the fact that infant baptism was common in the late second century. That is why he complains about the practice: 'Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?'"

Paul didn't just claim that infant baptism was "common". He claimed that it was part of the catholic faith.

But does his quote of Tertullian even demonstrate that infant baptism was "common"? No, it doesn't. In his treatise, Tertullian addresses a large variety of views put forth by various individuals and groups. He also sometimes mentions concepts without explaining whether he's responding to an argument some people use or is addressing a hypothetical. He doesn't tell us whether he's responding to people who argue for infant baptism. If he is responding to an argument he's heard or a practice he's seen, we wouldn't know whether it was "common". We don't even know where Tertullian saw infants baptized, if he did see it practiced. If it was practiced in a heretical group, for example, what would that group's existence do to further Paul Owen's argument? Does Paul want to conclude that every argument Tertullian responded to was "common"? Many of the views Tertullian addresses in his treatise are views that Paul Owen rejects. If those views were all "common" like infant baptism, then how much significance does such commonality have?

If infant baptism was "common" when Tertullian wrote, then why don't we see it in the earlier documents? Those documents often discuss baptism, and they sometimes address infant salvation. Yet, infant baptism is never mentioned. To the contrary, a source like Justin Martyr will discuss baptism as something resulting from choice, contrasting the people baptized with infants who make no choice to be born (First Apology, 61). As the patristic scholar David Wright mentioned in my earlier citation of him, infant baptism isn't mentioned much in the early centuries, even after it's first advocated in the third century. If it was "common" in Tertullian's day, why don't the pre-Tertullian sources discuss it?

Even if it had been a common practice, Paul would have to address the fact that it wasn't universal. So he tries to minimize Tertullian's rejection of infant baptism:

"In short, apart from all the potential problems involved in using Tertullian as a witness to Catholic teaching (in light of his attraction to the Montanist sect), he was certainly no Baptist."

Tertullian's treatise was written prior to his becoming a Montanist, so Paul refers to Tertullian's "attraction" to Montanism. How does Paul Owen know what "attraction" Tertullian had at the time, and how would such an attraction explain his rejection of infant baptism? Paul's argument here is reminiscent of the claim of some Roman Catholics that we should reject Tertullian's references to Mary as a sinner, because he became a Montanist. How does an eventual conversion to Montanism explain a belief that Mary was a sinner, including in pre-Montanist writings? What's the relation?

But Tertullian wasn't a Montanist when he wrote against infant baptism. And the other sources I cited, including the sources mentioned by David Wright, weren't Montanists.

Paul concludes:

"He [Tertullian] was aware of the practice of infant baptism in his day, and felt that it would be wiser to wait until the child has had a chance to grow older and consider the cost of being a Christian. Many others in the early Church wrongly postponed baptism on similar grounds."

What does it mean to "consider the cost of being a Christian"? It means that you're choosing to be a Christian. What is that if not credo-baptism? I've never claimed that every motivation of every source that opposed infant baptism was the same as the motivations of Baptists. But the rejection of infant baptism is similar, and there is some overlap in the motivations for rejecting it. Similarly, the people who supported infant baptism had a variety of reasons for doing so. Those reasons sometimes were contradictory, and they sometimes contradicted the reasoning of Paul Owen. As David Wright explains, "The irony is that it [infant baptism] became universal practice on the back of a theology that hardly any of us endorse today."

Paul wants us to believe that infant baptism is catholic, yet he can't cite any sources that advocate it in the earliest generations of church history, he ignores most of the data I cited against its early existence, he tries to dismiss Tertullian because Tertullian was "attracted" to Montanism, he dismisses everybody who agreed with Tertullian on the basis that their motives weren't entirely the same as those of Baptists, and he dismisses Gregory Nazianzen's ideal of post-infancy baptism on the basis that Gregory allowed an exception for dying infants. When Paul isn't ignoring the data, he's dismissing it by saying that the sources weren't Baptists or that they partially agreed with his view. But the people who opposed Paul's view of infant baptism don't have to have been Baptists in order to have opposed his view. And Paul's partial agreement with a source like Gregory doesn't change the fact that he also partially disagrees with that source.

It seems that Paul's concept of what's "catholic" is much like the Roman Catholic concept. It's so arbitrary and elastic as to not have much significance. Excluding Baptists seems to be one of its highest priorities.


  1. You want an example of baptism in the earliest life of the church?

    Polycarp, a direct disciple of the Apostle John was baptized as an infant. He was born around 69AD... only 36 years after the ascension and before much of the New Testament was penned. How much earlier would you like?

  2. Very true. And the Bible speaks of entire families being baptized. I think our heretic protestants get baptism confused with confirmation.

  3. An infant doesn't have faith, can't repent of sin (indeed doesn't need to), and can't decide to follow Jesus. In other words baptizing an infant just gets it wet. See Col 2:12, which says you are rasied through your faith, and 1 pe 3:21 which says you pledge or appeal a good conscience to God.

    Household baptisms don't specifically state that every infant and housecat was baptised, only the ones that responded to the message.

    And by the way, confirmation is not mentioned anywhere in the bible.