Monday, March 24, 2008

Green On Infant Baptism Pt. 5

"5. The Church Down Its History Has Baptised Children

There seems little doubt that it was the established practice of the subapostolic church to baptise infants within Christian homes. About a.d. 215 the Roman theologian Hippolytus, in a document significantly called The Apostolic Tradition, refers in the most natural way to the baptism of children. Indeed, he alludes to it as an ‘unquestioned rule’. ‘First, you should baptise the little ones. All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak, or another who belongs to their family.’ Then the grown men were baptised, and finally the women (Apostolic Tradition, 21). Hippolytus’ order of service for baptism had wide circulation, was translated into various languages, and set the standard for more than a thousand years.

We do not have much explicit evidence before Hippolytus. This is largely because not a great deal of reference is made to baptism in the surviving literature of the second century, and what there is does not always specify whether infant or adult baptism is meant. But what evidence there is supports the unquestioning acceptance of infant baptism. Thus Polycarp (c. a.d. 69–155), himself, it appears, a child of Christian parents, declared at his martyrdom, ‘Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong …’ This takes us back to around the year a.d. 70, in the heyday of the young church’s advance, when apostles were still alive. It is almost incredible that Polycarp means us to understand that he came to Christian beginnings in baptism as a lad of 12 or 14, when he would have been old enough to make his own adult decision for Christ. Had that been the case he would have been 100 when he died. Not many people reached that age in those days! When they did, it was a matter for special comment. No, Polycarp was almost certainly baptised as a baby eighty-six years before his martyrdom.

The same was true of Origen. Three times he mentions the baptism of infants as a custom of the church, and in his Commentary on Romans 6:5–7 he says, ‘For this reason the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising children too’. Origen, that extremely erudite Church Father, was born in a.d. 185 to a Christian family, and if he thinks infant baptism was an apostolic practice, he must surely have been baptised as an infant himself. Where did his parents get the idea from? Such questions take us back into the first Christian century.

Another of the great teachers of the early Church, Irenaeus (a.d. 130–200) is no less clear, and no less relaxed about the practice. He says that Jesus came to save all who through him are born again to God—infants, children, boys, youths and old men. He passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants, and so forth (Adv. Haer. 2:22:4). And Justin (a.d. 100–165), one of the earliest Christian writers from whom any substantial literary works have come down to us, mentions ‘many men and women of the age of sixty and seventy years who have been made disciples of Christ [note the passive form, emathÄ“teuthÄ“san] from childhood’ (1 Apol. 15:6). This is a clear allusion to baptism at a very early age.

The picture is clear and uniform. The early Christians baptised the children in their families, and took this to be an apostolic practice. There is, I believe, only one voice raised against the practice during the first fifteen hundred years of the church’s history, the lone voice of Tertullian (a.d. 160–220). That is not to say, of course, that there were no reformist movements in the church during that millennium and a half. Of course there were. Montanism in the second century, Donatism in the fourth, and the Franciscans, the Hussites and the followers of Wycliffe in the latter part of the Middle Ages were all preparing the way for the Reformation. They were all, in one way or another, attacks on the errors of the institutional church. But they did not bring into question the propriety of baptising the children of believers.

Tertullian, however, did. He lived in North Africa, and in the de Baptismo, written in a.d. 205, he expressed his doubts about infant baptism. It is very interesting that he does not use what would have been a clinching argument against it, namely that infant baptism did not derive from the apostles. He cannot do that, for he knows very well that it is no novelty in the church. Instead, he argues that the baptism of little children, except in cases of dire necessity, imposes too great a responsibility on the godparents; they might die and so be unable to fulfil their obligations, or undesirable tendencies might appear in the children! So he advises postponement of baptism. He prescribes the same for unmarried young adults and widows. Let them wait ‘until they either marry or make up their minds to continence’. Tertullian does not contest the legitimacy of baptism for such people, only the wisdom of it. Cunctatio baptismi utilior is his conclusion: delay of baptism is more beneficial (op. cit., 18). Ten years later, when writing the de Anima, Tertullian is happy for the baptism of children even if one parent is not a Christian, on the basis of a combination of 1 Corinthians 7:14 and John 3:5 (op. cit., 39).

This curious inconsistency in his treatment of infant baptism is probably best explained as follows. He seems to attest the universality of infant baptism, but in the de Baptismo reflects the growing tendency towards wanting a ‘pure church’, which led to a long catechumenate for adults who often deferred their baptism to their death beds! As Colin Buchanan acutely observes, ‘a catechumenate or long probationary period before adult baptism entails a reaction against infant baptism; and the apostolic way of doing adult baptism (i.e. immediately on profession of faith) happily accepts infant baptism.’ At all events, the inconsistency is clearly there in Tertullian. But his seems to have been the only voice raised against infant baptism. Whatever doubts he had about the propriety of baptising infants, nubile women, and widows before they had had a chance to prove themselves, these doubts made no impression on the North African Church to which he belonged. At the Synod of Carthage some years later, sixty-seven bishops from all over Christian Africa decided unanimously not to defer baptism until the eighth day, as was the case with circumcision, but to baptise directly after birth. So sure were these early Christian leaders that the baptism of infants represented the mind of God as displayed in the Old Testament and the attitude of Jesus.

Before leaving this subject of the early history of the church, one other matter is important. Just supposing the second century church had changed the rules, and had restricted baptism to those who were fully aware of what they were doing, should we not have heard something about it? When in the middle of the first century the Gentile Church saw no need to insist on circumcision and lawkeeping as conditions of entry into the family of God, there was a tremendous debate about it, which has left traces not only in Acts 15 but in many other places in the New Testament. The reverberations of that discussion were enormous. Are we to suppose, that a change of equal, if not greater, proportions took place in the early part of the second century without anyone in the surviving literature referring to it at all? That would surely strain credulity too far. The evidence suggests that the apostolic church baptised infants born to their members, and that this practice continued throughout the period of the undivided church until the Anabaptist protest at the Reformation."

Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power, 51 (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1987).

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