Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More About Irenaeus And Infant Baptism

Paul Owen has updated his article on Irenaeus and infant baptism (go here and scroll down). He makes four points in his update to the article. I'll respond to those four points in order, then make some closing comments.

1. I agree with Paul about Irenaeus' belief in a need for infants to be regenerated. The thief on the cross needed to be regenerated as well. You can believe that regeneration through baptism is normative without believing that regeneration always occurs through baptism.

2. Paul writes:

"Allowing an exception for a person who does not get the opportunity to be baptized is quite a different matter from exempting a whole class of people from the obligation."

The two are different, but the fact that they're different doesn't tell us whether Irenaeus made both exemptions. I didn't cite the thief on the cross in order to argue that exempting an individual is the same as exempting a group. Rather, I cited the thief on the cross to argue that the statements about the need for baptism were general, not exhaustive.

I think that the best explanation of Against Heresies 4:28:3 is that Irenaeus believed in universal infant salvation. The text suggests it, and we know that the belief was popular in the second century.

However, there's no need for Irenaeus to have believed in universal infant salvation in order for my argument to stand. All that's necessary is that Irenaeus believed in at least one infant being regenerated apart from baptism. The fact that infants were saved in the Old Testament era, when baptism wasn't practiced, is enough by itself to explain how infants could be included among those born again without the practice of infant baptism.

Paul asks:

"Why would he [Irenaeus] list them [infants] alongside these other groups if he viewed them as exempt from the requirement, or as being regenerated through some other means than baptism?"

Because he's not addressing the means by which they were regenerated. He's addressing the fact of regeneration, not the instrument by which it occurred. Similarly, the thief on the cross and every Old Testament man and woman who was regenerated by Christ are included among the people Irenaeus mentions. They weren't regenerated through baptism. At the time Irenaeus wrote, the late second century, there probably were more Old Testament individuals regenerated than individuals regenerated in New Testament times.

Paul writes, concerning Against Heresies 5:15:3:

"Obviously, this 'post-Adamic' condition which made necessary the laver of regeneration was not something that was occasioned by the conscious disobedience of the blind man in his years of maturity. It was a condition which he was born into. He was born blind, and in need of the laver of regeneration. That seems to prove conclusively that Irenaeus believed that sinners are born into this world in need of the laver of regeneration"

Again, I don't deny that Irenaeus viewed children as born in sin. He also saw them as innocent in another sense and refers to them being in Heaven as a result, as I documented earlier. Irenaeus refers to the children murdered in the Slaughter of the Innocents going to Heaven, and he refers to other children being in Heaven, without any mention of baptism. The fact that children are in need of regeneration doesn't prove that they're regenerated through infant baptism.

3. Paul writes:

"Jason’s citations of Irenaeus’ comments about little children in Against Heresies IV.28.3 and III.16.4 are hardly conclusive. What they do in fact show is that even 'innocent children, who have had no sense of evil,' still need to be saved through Christ. These optimistic affirmations of the salvation of little children need to be kept in the context of Irenaeus’ strong affirmation of the necessity of baptism elsewhere. The one does not negate the other."

Again, the "necessity of baptism" is a generalization, not an absolute. The murdered infants of Bethlehem weren't baptized. And Irenaeus' statement about infants in general being innocent is an appeal to the status of infants, not an appeal to their having been baptized. If infants who lived before the time of baptism are in Heaven, and if other infants are in Heaven as a result of some sense of innocence, then why do we need a Christian practice of infant baptism in order to explain why Irenaeus refers to infants being born again?

4. I wouldn't suggest that David Wright's comments "put an end to discussion of the subject". I cited his comments because of the evidence he mentions and because of what his comments on modern scholarship suggest about the credibility of the credo-baptist position. I don't deny that there have been scholars who have argued for infant baptism in Irenaeus and other patristic sources. David Wright mentions some such scholars. But Wright makes the significant point that scholarship has become more open to the credo-baptist position in recent times, because the sort of prejudice that used to exist against that position has lessened. Wright's comments also are significant because he gives examples of paedo-baptist scholars acknowledging an inability to trace the practice of infant baptism back to the apostles. When paedo-baptist scholars are making such admissions, and a scholar like Wright will even go so far as to say that infant baptism didn't become normative in the West until after the time of Augustine, how credible are Paul Owen's negative comments about Baptists and his claim that infant baptism is part of the catholic faith? I think that Wright's comments suggest that the Baptist perspective deserves more respect than Paul Owen gives it.

In closing, I want to emphasize again that Irenaeus and other sources of the first two centuries discuss baptism often, and they sometimes discuss infant salvation. The fact that paedo-baptists have to resort to passages like the ones Paul has been citing in Irenaeus suggests that paedo-baptists don't have much to work with. Their lack of material to work with isn't a result of subjects like baptism and infant salvation not being mentioned much. Rather, it's a result of an absence of any mention of the concept in the large number of passages that discuss baptism and infant salvation.

Any thought of trying to explain that absence by an appeal to happenstance becomes even less credible once we consider what later sources that do discuss the subject say about it. We see everything from baptizing no infants to baptizing some infants to baptizing all infants, and the reasons given for the various positions are different and sometimes contradictory. Considering that background, a person who believes in baptizing all infants in order to bring them into a Christian society in an Israel/church parallel shouldn't be speaking of his position as part of the catholic faith. Even if Paul reduces his position so much that he only looks for sources who sometimes baptized infants for some reason (not necessarily Paul's reasons), Paul still wouldn't be able to claim that his position is part of the catholic faith. The earliest explicit voice on this issue is Tertullian, and Tertullian's rejection of infant baptism is the position most consistent with the pre-Tertullian data.


  1. Someone:

    I’m troubled with OT biblical incest. It seems there’s an obvious moral inconsistency between the law then compared to now. Why was incest ok in the old and not now? It seems the gross factor would have been the same no matter the time. How should I approach this topic? Is it possible God created other people ex nihilo and the Hebrew bible just doesn’t mention it? I’m completely confused. I’m hoping you can help.


  2. I've discussed the issue of incest here:

    Scroll down to #7.