TO A FRIEND - Part 3 - INFANT BAPTISM - Claims around History and Tradition
Updated: Sep 18
To a friend who writes about a journey to / back into Eastern Orthodoxy. At this moment I am not posting the original blog post link to allow reasonable distance for those not connected to this matter. I may in the future if needed.
Dear Friend, You have made a number of observations and claims, a hearts desire to see Children as an active part of the community. The questions in some way I too have but with a more open handed and experienced posture. I have four children and have actively worked for
decades to see Children come to Christ and experience the richness of Jesus' bride.
However, for a little critique of specific historic claims, I also simply don't think some things posted in your blog are accurate. I have been deep in matters of tradition for many years. If someone reads my blog I write on my approach to scriptural hermeneutics which includes tradition. The four legged, often called Wesleyan Quadrilateral approach to hermeneutics is logical, historical and consistent, I myself add another leg and now it’s the ‘Pentelateral’ 😉 For some time I have been writing privately, on the continuing development of Pentecostal Theology (strengths and weaknesses / mystery and mastery) so for time’s sake I have drawn on some of that if it sounds disjointed. APPEAL TO PLINY THE YOUNGER’S LETTER I have read Pliny the Younger's letter many many times and just recently (I posted part of his letter on my FB just a month or two ago) I don't recall any direct mention of children in any specific ‘inclusive community sense’.
I also just re-read multiple times now also to ensure I was not reading over anything.
The closest I could find was regarding his examination for judgement and whether “distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon” and "For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. " This has nothing to do with observations of children in community, least of all infant’s involvement in community. It is whether he should judge and potentially kill ‘younger’ and ‘adult’ alike (some translations actually say "weak" and "Robust")
This is part of a wider attempt in gaining information, in part through the torture of two women, who “who were said to officiate in their religious rites” or in other translations are "Deaconesses". I see radical inclusion spoken of, but it is a reference more accurately about women not children in Pliny’s letter. If we are to use Pliny’s observation about inclusion as a challenge, maybe for many it should be about women’s involvement in Church religious rites. Evidently, from a traditionalist point of view, more Priestly roles. An appeal to Pliny at all seems a massive stretch except a broad-brush stroke that this superstition had infected everything. I have a deeply invested personal interest in the Black Sea area of Turkey, both ancient and recent in part due to this heritage but also it’s wholesale conversion to Islam.
I do appreciate Pliny’s letter, given it is probably the earliest mention of Christian gathering from a non-believer but that in itself raises more questions given the description of meeting before dawn, specific confessions about not sinning, later coming together to eat together. These were not processions in grand buildings but secretive meetings in homes in Pontus under the cover of darkness. It also includes direct mention that many involved had recanted their faith and in actual fact had apparently stopped meeting all together. Particularly in regard to their meeting, it is Pliny's report not a first hand positive account. That said, he says, They
"...first said that they were Christians and afterwards denied it, declaring that they had been but were so no longer, some of them having recanted many years before, and more than one so long as twenty years back. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the deities, and cursed the name of Christ."
I most certainly think his description of the believing community is challenging in the positive elements, the common conviction of their faith, commitment to absolute holiness and readiness to die is what stands out to me however, lets not kid ourselves, the early Church, both referenced in the scriptures and in this text is often full of sin, denial and false belief all side by side with incredible sacrifice and faith. I once used to talk of the early Church in somewhat superficially positive terms until I read Scripture more closely and the early Church references and disputes more deeply. I soon realised, in so many ways they were amazing, and in other ways, the Church is actually in some ways better now. I guess at the end of the day, whether Early or present, the Church is full of normal people, saved by grace. POLYCARP.
In regard to Polycarp, he was near certainly converted somewhere around 10 - 12 through the preaching of John (Iranaeus says he was converted through preaching of John) being born in AD69 and it is generally considered converted in AD81. Although not particularly reliable, other sources tell of his being adopted as he was from the east as a slave child. Whether that story is true or not entirely tells us the earlier Church certainly did not assume he was born into a Christian family. In the ‘Martyrdom of Polycarp’ it is said, he said he would not deny his faith after 86 years of serving the Lord. It says nothing in regard to infant baptism. However, the Harris fragments, from the Smyrna community, generally considered reliable, reference Polycarp living to 104 years old. This would make him a teenager when he came to faith.
As such, either way, I myself would say “I have served the Lord my entire life”. Polycarp’s refusal to deny Christ and subsequent execution can't be taken historically as evidence for much except that he was unwilling to bow to the world after many years of serving the Lord. As said, we do know it’s quite possible he lived to 104 and was converted through the preaching of John, we must be careful not to read onto words things that are not stated. There is a common trend in those appealing for Infant baptism, an appeal to the vague not to the clear. GENERAL REFERENCE TO BAPTISM IN THE EARLY CHURCH
Regarding the first years of the Church, it is simply not true that Infant baptism was the common approach. In fact, the first explicit mention directly and clearly about Infant Baptism is by Tertullian, who tells people not to do so (De Baptismo – around 198 – 202 AD) Even scholars who theologically affirm paedo-baptism (of Children) affirm that credo-baptism (upon confession) is the only explicit expression and experience of Baptism in the earliest Church writings with little evidence of a positive view of paedo-baptism till later on. It existed on some level but in dispute. Historical scholar, Everett Ferguson, notes about Infant Baptism that “It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries.” (p. 857, Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Eerdmans, 2009) The early Church often had a very thorough catechism required before baptism including up to a couple years of teaching, fasting and renunciation of sin (Didache, Chapter 7 – circa AD 70 and Hippolytus). These reinforce a confession and consecration-based baptism. Baptism, as mentioned in the scriptures is contingent on repentance.
Passing references to ‘households’ being baptised is a stretch and requires reading into the text something not said and goes against the explicit contingent factor, being repentance (circumcision of the heart) before baptism.
Hippolytus does mention children being baptised but that is side by side with the catechism requirements. Again, confessionally based. Coptic translations of the text also make it clear that three years is required between repentance and baptism.
If someone has capacity to truly confess and understand, then Baptism is available.
The early Church does challenge me, and that is with it's thorough preparation. This practice has challenged me here in my present context, people so often baptise people I am convinced don’t understand the Gospel or the faith and in doing so inoculate them against the life of the Gospel. Some claim that this lack of evidence for infant baptism in the early Church is due to the expansion of the Church, a possible point but does not explain why those born to Christian parents, such as Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome and Augustine were all only baptised later in life.
None of these early Church leaders were baptised as babies despite having Christian family. Augustine’s own mother was also born into a Christian family. Importantly, given we are Christians, Jesus was also not baptised as a Child but baptised later to "fulfil all righteousness" (Matt 3:15). Baptism is not only a Christian rite but birthed from Jewish practice. Andrew and John were previous disciples of John the Baptist and we have no reason to think they were not following John and Jesus in their example. The cementing of a change only really comes with Augustinian emphasis on original sin having judgement consequence. As noted, Tertullian (circa 200) specifically speaks against or atleast discourages the practice of infant baptism. On the positive he says this because they lack understanding of the faith, a confession-based baptism, which evidently I agree with. To be open as well, he also says such because he (as did a fair amount of early Church fathers) believed that major sin after baptism was unforgiveable (which evidently, I nonetheless reject).
It is not really until Origen and Cyprian in the third century that we see Infant baptism encouraged at all. Frankly, Origen had painfully bad use of scripture, a point largely agreed upon by the East and West. It was not till after Augustine and his emphasis on original sin (and consequence) that infant baptism became close to universal. The deeper issue though theologically is a problem that should bother all. As baptism was (and is by Roman and most Eastern rites) seen as ‘regenerational’ or “for the remissions of sins”, baptised were saved, the unbaptised were not.
The unbaptised, no matter the age, would go through punishment, the baptised would not.
Baptism of infants was particularly encouraged in Roman Catholicism as a response to the impending judgement with infant mortality. Roman consideration of ‘ascent’, settling at 7 years eventually came into discussion but the problem remains. Consistent affirmation of regenerational baptism directly implies that the unbaptised go to hell, this is what Augustine believed. It is important to note, the question, even by Aquinus was not ‘do unbaptised babies go to hell?’ but ‘to which part of hell? Aquinus argued that unbaptised children will go to “poena damni” (pain of loss being separated from God) but will not experience “poena sensus” (meaning punishment-based consequence) but be placed in “limbus puerorum” (childs limbo). The consistent basis of those through history that have affirmed infant baptism is that the unbaptised baby certainly goes to hell.
Such is a problem considering Paul emphasised that he made very little effort to baptise (1 Cor 1:14 – 17). The preaching of the Gospel was and is the power under salvation (Rom 1:16 – 17), unto inclusion in Christ (Eph 1:13 - 14), not baptism.
One’s response to the Gospel is always the issue.
CIRCUMCISION AND BAPTISM The last general argument offered is the attempt to draw a parallel between Circumcision in the Old Covenant and Baptism in the New Covenant. Two things are important to note quickly before moving on, baptism existed before ‘John the Baptist’, it existed with Israel as well. I find it curious that many who appeal heavily to tradition ignore the Jewish background of our faith.
I think this possibly comes out of ignorance birthed in parts of the early Church due to the forced removal of Jewish believers from centres of influence including Jerusalem and Rome at different times. The book of Romans itself is in many ways addressing this dislocation and ‘relocation’ into Christ as our primary identity.
To move on, The Old Covenant had a physical means of entrance into a physical nation, Israel as the covenant community (Genesis 17:10-13). This physical sign was not reflective of a spiritual participation, Moses commanded the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (Deut 10:6), and that God would do this circumcising (Deut 30:6). Again, emphasised by Jeremiah (Jer 4:4)
As different from the nation of Israel, the new Ecclesia (Duet 18:16, Matt 16:18) or spiritual people of God had a spiritual means of entrance: one must believe and be saved (Acts 16:31, Rom 10:9, Eph 1:13 - 14). In the New Covenant and reflected in early Church catechism, even if one views it as a bit extreme, is that one’s genuine spiritual life is connected to the sign of baptism. Only those that committed to God through their trust in Jesus should be baptised. Paul speaks of inclusion in the new testament, and it is not through physical circumcision and it is not through faithless baptism but rather he preaches in Romans 2:29 that it is accomplished in the Spirit, the circumcision of the heart. This is accomplished through repentance. In Colossians 2:11 – 12 it again refers to this circumcision of the heart. “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead."
The circumcision is not a cutting away of the flesh but our old nature, it is salvation effected through the Spirit. Baptism as then illustrated in verse 12 does not replace circumcision, it comes after the spiritual circumcision. As in the Old Covenant, circumcision is concurrent with immersion not a replacement for it. In the New, the crucial difference is, the circumcision is of the heart, through repentance. As in both, immersion comes after. Baptism is the sign of the inward circumcision effected by the Spirit when we repent and place our faith in Jesus.
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” Romans 10:9 – 11 Next Blog: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Church - quick answers