Friday, April 07, 2006

Infant Baptism in the early centuries

Infant Baptism in the early centuries
David Wright, Professor of Patristic and Reformed Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, responds in particular to the articles by Colin Buchanan and Michael Saward.

Among the things that do disservice to the case for baptizing babies is exaggeration of the historical evidence from the early church. This, I fear, is the temptation Michael Saward (and even, to a lesser extent, Colin Buchanan) has succumbed to. It would be a healthy development if we were content to defend the practice as theologically consistent with the teaching of Scripture, without feeling the need to prove that the apostles did it.

As an undergraduate I remember Professor Charlie Moule commenting on J. Jeremias’ Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (1960): that it contained ‘at least all the evidence’. Well, scholarship has not stood still since 1960. The careful statement in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) sums up a growing consensus: ‘While the possibility that infant baptism was also practised in the apostolic age cannot be excluded, baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents’. I am not aware of any poll among professional New Testament scholars, but my clear impression is that many, perhaps a clear majority, are at best highly uncertain about paedobaptism’s apostolic origins.

At the other end of the Patristic period, numerous writers could be cited in support of the judgement that in the West infant baptism did not become normative practice until some time after Augustine (d. 430), in the later fifth or the sixth or seventh centuries. The irony is that it became universal practice on the back of a theology that hardly any of us endorse today.

Between the times of the New Testament and Augustine, there is the little problem of the eclipse of infant baptism in the fourth century and into the fifth – far longer than Jeremias recognized, and longer than Saward’s ‘short period of reaction’. Virtually all, if not absolutely all, of the children of Christian parents about whose baptism we have information during this century were not baptized in infancy. They included most of ‘the golden age of the church fathers’.

The evidence is often less straightforward than apologetically- driven interpreters suppose. Jeremias believed that the first child of Christian parents known not to have been baptized as a baby was Gregory of Nazianzus, born around A.D. 328/9. In fact Gregory is the first child of Christian parents about whose baptism or non-baptism we have firm knowledge either way. There is no earlier case. Identifying the first offspring of Christians who was definitely baptized as a baby is not easy. Nestorius (born. around A.D. 381) may be a serious candidate.

More worryingly, Saward seems to assume that infant baptism either was or was not practised – all or nothing. But if one had to come up with a single verdict on the early church as a whole it could only be that dual practice held sway. In fact, we need a much more carefully differentiated evaluation of different kinds of evidence. Which (kinds of) infants were baptized, and when, and where? What does a liturgical text tell us about practice? Why is no adjustment to baptismal liturgy to accommodate non-responding infants attested until c. 400?

Why do burial inscriptions that record the baptism of babies or young children in perhaps every case fix their baptism shortly before their death? This was infant baptism, in the sense that dying infants were thought suitable recipients of baptism, but it was not normative except as clinical baptism – and seems to tell us that infants were not being routinely baptized at birth.

It is not only in the New Testament that the explicit evidence points to the baptism of responding believers. The same is true throughout vast reaches of Patristic writings.

There is very little theology of infant baptism in the early centuries until one gets to Augustine – and he started out not knowing why babies were baptized. (His godly mother Monnica showed no knowledge of it.) Shortly before Augustine began teaching the West that because of original sin babies dying unbaptized went to hell, John Chrysostom in the Greek East was telling catechumens that babies were not baptized for remission of sins because they had none to be remitted. (The many volumes of Chrysostom’s writings mention infant baptism only a couple of times.) If infant baptism had been universal practice from the first, it was for long a rite in search of a theology.

There is much more to be said, not least on almost every item of evidence cited by Saward. The historical debate is now far more open than it was in Jeremias’ day, not least because there is far less prejudice abroad among paedobaptists against believers-baptists and their baptism.

Jeremias’ critic, Kurt Aland (in ‘Did the early church baptise infants?’ 1961), argued that the practice of infant baptism did not start until the second century, but that it was theologically justified today. This seems to me a wiser position to adopt. I believe that a credible biblical-theological case can be advanced for baptizing the babies of Christians, but I doubt if one can be made to rest on historical grounds, among which I include New Testament texts allegedly attesting practice. At best the biblical arguments suggest to me that infant baptism should be viewed as an adiaphoron, a matter on which Christians may validly on scriptural ground hold different positions. This, I take it, is precisely the stance of Baptismal Integrity.

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