Sunday, January 29, 2023

Baptism And Justification In Aristides

Aristides is one of the most neglected of the earliest church fathers. He seldom gets mentioned in patristic discussions, and I don't remember ever seeing anybody bring him up in the context of soteriology in particular. He didn't write much about soteriology, but he did make some comments of significance that are worth discussing.

Regarding the death of children, he wrote, "And when a child has been born to one of them [Christians], they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins." (Apology, 15) The belief that only baptized infants are saved would later become popular, but Aristides says nothing of baptism and apparently thinks that all children who die in childhood go to heaven.

Later in the same document, he writes the following about the salvation of adults:

"And on their side, they offer prayer that these may repent of their error; and when it happens that one of them has repented, he is ashamed before the Christians of the works which were done by him; and he makes confession to God, saying, I did these things in ignorance. And he purifies his heart, and his sins are forgiven him, because he committed them in ignorance in the former time, when he used to blaspheme and speak evil of the true knowledge of the Christians." (17)

Again, baptism isn't even mentioned. Instead, he seems to think that justification occurs at the time of repentance.

That raises an issue that sometimes comes up in discussions of the relationship between baptism and justification. Though Aristides emphasizes repentance, and doesn't even mention faith, the opposite occurs more often. Faith is mentioned without any discussion of repentance. But either way, whichever of the two goes unmentioned, doesn't our assumption that the unmentioned element is included open the door to also assuming that baptism is meant to be included in passages that don't mention it?

See here for a discussion of why that argument doesn't work. Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. There is no third side of the coin involving baptism. The relationship between faith and repentance is significantly different than the relationship between either of those and baptism, and baptism is substantially different for other reasons. See the post linked above for a further discussion of the subject.

We have to make the same kind of distinctions in other contexts as well. For example, the concept that we're justified through faith carries with it certain background assumptions, such as that we're alive and that we understand the language in which the gospel message is being communicated. A person who doesn't exist can't have faith, and we aren't going to respond in faith to a gospel message communicated in a language we don't understand. But the fact that such factors are involved doesn't mean that we can assume that baptism is also a background assumption, comparable to the assumption that the person having faith exists and that he understands the language in which the gospel is conveyed. Baptism isn't a required background assumption. It isn't comparable to the sort of background factors I've mentioned above. The fact that something involved in justification can be distinguished from faith, such as repentance or understanding the language in which the gospel is communicated, doesn't mean that we can add anything we want to faith. Rather, if something is to be added, it would have to be something that's logically implied, such as how faith implies repentance and how understanding the language of the gospel is a necessary prerequisite. Baptism doesn't have that sort of quality.

1 comment:

  1. There are other points that can be made about Polycarp, Aristides, and the other sources I'm addressing in these posts. I'm not suggesting that I'm covering every relevant topic. I'm providing an overview.

    For example, you can read the sentences just before and just after what I quoted from section 15 of Aristides' Apology for further evidence that he was thinking of children going to heaven, not just their avoiding sin. The reason why Christians are so thankful in the context of the death of these children isn't just that the children "passed through the world without sins" considered by itself. Rather, they're also thankful because of the implication that the children have gone to a better place, just as the sentences just before and just after what I quoted refer to the afterlife status of the righteous and the unrighteous. Furthermore, as I've discussed in other posts over the years (e.g., here), there seems to have been widespread belief in universal infant salvation in the first few generations of Christianity, so such a belief on Aristides' part makes more sense in that context. These additional contextual factors aren't necessary to make my point, since the unqualified thankfulness of the Christians referred to in the sentence I quoted makes more sense if the children were thought to have gone to heaven than otherwise. But these contextual considerations provide further evidence.

    In section 17 of the document, the text itself suggests that only repentance is in view as the means of justification (e.g., the multiple references to repentance and how "he purifies his heart" is a conceptual synonym for repentance and is more simply, and thus preferably, interpreted as a reference only to repentance, not a combination of repentance and an outward ceremony, like baptism). But if you look beyond the text I quoted, there are further indications that only repentance is in view. For example, we need to keep the larger context of the document in mind. Aristides was addressing a pagan audience. They would be unlikely to assume that references to something like repentance or faith include baptism. It's problematic to claim that a document written to a Christian audience is assuming the inclusion of baptism where nothing in the text or context implies it. It's even more problematic to suggest that a pagan audience would be making such assumptions about the inclusion of baptism.

    More could be said, but my point is that there's more relevant evidence in these sources than what I'm bringing up in these posts. I recommend reading the documents yourself. I'm highlighting some of the relevant evidence without trying to be exhaustive.