Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hippolytus And Infant Baptism

It looks as though Paul Owen won't be responding to my last article on infant baptism in Justin Martyr. I want to move on, then, to Hippolytus.

Before I discuss Hippolytus, however, I want to review the evidence leading up to his time (early third century). None of the pre-Tertullian sources mention infant baptism. Relevant subjects, such as baptism, infant salvation, and circumcision's relationship to Christianity, are discussed often in the pre-Tertullian sources. But none of them advocate infant baptism, and what they do say about baptism often excludes infants. While it might be argued that people from non-Christian homes are in view in some passages, it's unlikely that infant baptism would be widely practiced while going unmentioned for so long, by so many sources, and in so many contexts. Some of the earliest comments on baptism seem to be addressing baptism in general, not just the baptism of people from non-Christian homes, so it would be unnatural to assume that only some sub-category of baptism is being addressed.

The Didache, for example, tells us:

"And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before." (7)

Though people could withhold food from infants, infants wouldn't be ordered to fast. And we're told that these comments are "concerning baptism". We're not told that only people from non-Christian homes are being addressed. If infants were continually being born into Christian homes, and they were the surest source of new baptisms, why would their baptism go unmentioned in so many early sources, and why would those sources repeatedly make comments that exclude infants without any qualifiers?

Sources like The Didache aren't as explicit as Tertullian and later sources would be. However, as I said earlier, the pre-Tertullian evidence leans in the credo-baptist direction.

What about Hippolytus, though? It's agreed that infant baptism is advocated among the church fathers as early as the middle of the third century. If Hippolytus advocates it, then the date can be moved forward somewhat, to the early third century.

There are some problems with citing Hippolytus, though, problems that Paul Owen didn't mention. The dating, authorship, textual transmission, and meaning of the passage in question are disputed. David Wright comments that "Almost everything concerning this text remains the subject of lively scholarly argument" (What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? [England: Paternoster Press, 2005], p. 38).

On the one hand:

"This quotation from the Apostolic Tradition is found in a Latin translation which dates from the fourth century. Some scholars have even suggested that it is not unlikely that this verse was inserted in the Latin translation since incidentally it was also in the fourth century that infant baptism became must remember that the ancient translators had no objections to inserting and omitting phrases from the text from which they translated. They often adapted texts to suit their present situation. This can be clearly seen when one compares, for example, the extant sections of the Greek, Sahidic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Boharic translations of the Apostolic Tradition....The most important argument, however, for the later addition of this sentence is that it does not fit in very well in the whole pericope. As Aland (1963:43ff.) has pointed out, the sections which precede this baptismal regulation, deal exclusively with adult catechumens...He also refers to the Coptic translation having a statement that three years are required for a person to receive instruction in the Christian faith before baptism was administered." (Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw, Baptism In The Early Church [Webster, New York: Carey Publications, 2004], pp. 77-78)

On the other hand, David Wright reports that Paul Bradshaw and his colleagues have concluded that the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus is a collection of material from a variety of sources "perhaps as early as the mid-second century to as late as the mid-fourth" (What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? [England: Paternoster Press, 2005], p. 39). Wright goes on to explain that "most of it [Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition] is attributed by Bradshaw and his fellow authors to a core document dating from perhaps the middle of the second century" (p. 39). But what did that "core document" contain?

These issues of dating, authorship, and textual transmission would be much more significant if it weren't for one qualifying factor. No matter what date we assign the document, its brief reference to baptizing children who can't speak for themselves is inconclusive. As Stander and Louw explain:

"Those who could not speak for themselves could be very young children who needed assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. They were not exempted from the teaching and fasting preliminaries etc." (Baptism In The Early Church [Webster, New York: Carey Publications, 2004], p. 77)

Stander and Louw make a good point, considering that no place is given for infants in the rest of this work attributed to Hippolytus. As with other early baptismal instructions, these instructions in the Apostolic Tradition are believer-centered. (I'll be saying more about this theme in an article to be posted tomorrow.)

This concept of having an adult speak for children, even though the children were capable of speaking, isn't unprecedented. A later council in Carthage, for example, made provision for sick people to have somebody else speak for them during the baptismal ceremonies. (See canon 45 here.) David Wright notes:

"Is a child's physical and mental capacity in view, or is the ability more juridical, implying the Roman recognition that at the age of seven children entered into certain rights to speak for themselves? Augustine and Jerome would later treat seven as a new age of Christian responsibility, Augustine in connexion with the baptism of a boy speaking for himself. In what terms a parent or other relative spoke for a non-responding child we do not know, and no source tells us until ca. 400." (What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? [England: Paternoster Press, 2005], p. 40)

Then there's the further question of the circumstances in which these children were baptized. As we've seen illustrated with Gregory Nazianzen, some sources only wanted to baptize dying infants. Some scholars think that infant baptism originated as something done only for dying infants, then expanded to all infants. If the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus is discussing infants, how do we know that all infants are in view rather than just dying infants? We don't.

But let's grant, for the sake of discussion, a series of assumptions:

1.) that this section in Apostolic Tradition is not a later insertion

2.) that it dates as early as possible, perhaps to the middle of the second century

3.) that the children are infants

4.) that all infants, not just dying infants, are in view

Granting those four assumptions, what would we have? We would have a significantly stronger case for infant baptism. But we would still have the evidence against infant baptism that I've mentioned in this article and previous articles. Though the four assumptions mentioned above would strengthen the case for infant baptism, we would still be far from the catholicity of infant baptism for which Paul Owen has been arguing. We would still be left with four categories, more than a thousand years before the Anabaptists came along:

1.) opposition to all infant baptism (Tertullian)

2.) support of all infant baptism (Cyprian)

3.) opposition to infant baptism as normative, but acceptance of it for dying infants (Gregory Nazianzen)

4.) people who are known to have opposed infant baptism to some extent, but we don't know what the extent was or their reasons for it (Christian parents who didn't baptize their children, such as Basil of Caesarea's parents)

Tomorrow, I'll be posting an article that summarizes the history of infant baptism, including some further quotes from the recent book by David Wright that I've quoted briefly in this article.

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