Baptism: belief and practice

Interesting observation at the end of Michael Spencer’s latest post about “rebaptism”, in a footnote asking people not to divert the conversation into a discussion of infant vs adult-only baptism:

Many commenters may not be aware that a scholarly consensus on the historical relationship of believer’s baptism and infant baptism has existed for some time. Read David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? Wright is a paedobaptist and the acknowledged historical authority in Christianity on the history of baptism.

That consensus is that the earliest baptisms were the baptisms of adult converts, and the question of baptizing children arose and eventually became standard in various places in the first two centuries of Christian history.

This does not settle the “What does the Bible support?” question, but it does say that both positions have a place in Christian history and there is no real discussion about what was being done in the first decades of the Christian movement.

I’ve responded to similar thoughts from Michael in more detail in the past, but here’s a further, throwaway thought on this. If we accept David Wright’s account of the historical consensus (and, not having read Wright, I have no particular reason to doubt what he says), then I’m inclined to say that:

  • if we follow how the early/NT church practised baptism, then this will tend to lead us towards restricting baptism only to adult converts;
  • if we follow what the early/NT church believed about baptism (its purpose and meaning), then this will tend to lead us towards supporting infant baptism.

I am, of course, wildly oversimplifying. And – while I strongly disagree with the Baptist position – I’m certainly not saying that those holding that view are stubbornly resisting “the plain teaching of Scripture” or only taking a “low” view of baptism. I’m glad that Michael emphasises (in an earlier post) that “when the Church baptizes, it speaks a word from God to the one baptized”, and think it would be healthy for many evangelical churches if this were emphasised more than it usually is.

But the practice of infant baptism came from somewhere, and I suspect it came partly from the early/NT church’s high view of what God does in baptism, leading to a recognition that infants both could and should receive the same blessings for themselves: rebirth, forgiveness, union with Christ, and so on.

It’s certainly difficult to see how the practice of infant baptism could have developed without opposition – indeed, without so much as a ripple of controversy – if it had not been seen as being profoundly consistent with what the church believed about the nature, meaning and purpose of baptism.

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8 Responses to Baptism: belief and practice

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Rebaptism: How Did We Get Here?

  2. iMonk says:

    This consensus is also part of ecumenical documents on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry from the WCC.

    As I said, it doesn’t settle the argument. It does give each team something else to say.

    For example, the justification for infant baptism is often done with the assumption that Jesus baptized infants. Being told that the Great Commission includes infants as if Baptists are ignoring the word “infants!” usually ends the conversation. I don’t believe that Jesus did baptize infants, but he may have spoken about the relationship between the new and old covenants in a way that led to the logic of infant baptism.

    What that does for me is say that a church that allows for BOTH is quite possibly following the New Testament closer than either strict paedo or credo positions.

    But that doesn’t really help us with Lutheran and RC friends, because I’m basically seeing a Baptist and Covenant theology combination as being possible. (Wilson’s church.)

    The view of the RC and the Lutheran church does, I believe grow out of the importance placed on Baptism in the early church. But we would seriously part ways on how we view the efficacy of the sacraments without discussing context.

    I would continue to say that the high view of sacramental efficacy creates problems far more serious than any Zwinglian view causes for us, and it is the RC/Lutheran side- esp the Lutheran side- that more frequently plays the “It’s a mystery” card. (And that’s fine. We need more of that imo.)

  3. iMonk says:

    Jason at Triablogue actually summarized some of Wrght’s major points.

  4. Josh S says:

    There are Eastern churches (both Orthodox and non-Chalcedonian) that have always immersed infants. The kids don’t like it too much.

    The early church mostly baptizing new converts isn’t conclusive either, because most early Christians were converts from paganism. Not having a church building was also the New Testament pattern.

    More interesting to me is that there was not a huge objection to parents who didn’t baptize their children, although the Council of Carthage in 254 said that no one should hinder infants from baptism.

  5. Acts 2:37-39 (ESV)
    Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” [38] And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

    I baptized a baby boy yesterday. 2 weeks old, and I would rather have done it earlier. Peter mentions specifically to the crowd that this promise attached to baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which must include the Holy Spirits gift of faith, is for their children.
    That and the idea that God used to seal the same promises to children 8 days old with circumcision, tells me unless stated other wise, God wants children to be baptized.
    Sure they might leave the faith later on in life, but I have seen that happen with people baptized in their forties too. Parents don’t think they should make that choice for their children. Of course they should, God tells them to bring their children up in the word. When they get older they can and will make their own choices, but until them you ground them in the word of God and teach them the Christian faith.

  6. John H says:

    Michael: Thanks for the links. LOL reading the Triablogue comment thread, which includes someone with the handle “Orthodox” who clearly thinks the post was talking about N.T. Wright rather than David Wright.

    As for “efficacy of the sacraments”, I must admit that sort of language doesn’t really do a great deal for me, and IMO it tends to cloud the issue in discussions between Lutherans and other evangelicals. (For much the same reason I was a bit brusque with Matthew Johnson on Twitter yesterday on the subject of “baptismal regeneration” – a term which is of no use in Lutheran/evangelical discussion until we’ve hit on a shared definition of “regeneration”. Which we probably can’t achieve outside agreement on baptism. So around we go.)

    What Lutherans really believe in is the efficacy of the word of God. That when the pastor says “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, then he is speaking as Christ’s agent, so that it is as if Christ said those words with his own lips.

    Of course, a Baptist could respond by pointing out that (to pursue the legal analogy further) an agent who acts outside the scope of their authority does not bind their principal. So if Christ does not want to baptise infants then the church cannot make him do so against his will, even if they say the words and perform the action.

    But the point is we’ve then moved the discussion on from abstractions about “sacramental efficacy” to asking “What is the word which God speaks in baptism, and to whom is it addressed?” A more interesting and fruitful question, where we can probably find more common ground.

    More interesting to me is that there was not a huge objection to parents who didn’t baptize their children, although the Council of Carthage in 254 said that no one should hinder infants from baptism.

    Josh, what do you think that says about what was believed? Do you think it shows a lack of belief in “original sin” (i.e. a belief that infants don’t need what baptism offers), or even of “Calvinist” tendencies as regards the concept of “covenant children” (who don’t need baptism because their “covenant status” is derived from being the children of believers, not from baptism)? Or perhaps even of at least semi-universalist tendencies, in which a stark division between “the saved” and “the damned” is absent?

  7. I want to highly recommend Praxis Obnoxia for all to get and read. It is very scholarly, scholastic, concise, and very revealing concerning the Invalid Vatican II Rite of Baptism. From the discussions I am having, certain Bishops and Priests re-baptize Protestants and Novus Ordo converts alike to join them to the communion of their churches because of the defective practices performed by the sectarian ministers who allegedly baptized them. While other clergy are Indifferent or do not have a precise praxis. I hear various stories that lack uniformity of ritual. So, I feel this book is something Catholics should consider. I even met certain Orthodox and Uniate Catholic clergy who consider this a very hot topic between Old Calendar/New Calendar and New Ritual/Old Ritual persuasions. Some groups re-baptize, some only use chrismation, some also are unsure. Baptism is necessary by a necessity of means, and the validity of the other sacraments rely on its valid reception, so this is a most important topic.

    Here’s a summary of the book and how you can get a copy:

    Praxis Obnoxia: A Moral-Theological Conclusion On The New Modernist Rite of Baptism.

    Praxis Obnoxia: A Moral-Theological Conclusion On The New Modernist Rite of Baptism, investigates the Novus Ordo “Praxis” of baptism as very questionable and positively doubtful for validity. The book provides ample documentation and a bibliography with sources from the Apostolic See, theologians, rubricians, and canonists, original liturgical texts in Latin and English, and lots of photographic illustrations. This book is strongly recommended for all who truly desire to be a good Catholic. For since the importance of receiving a doubtless valid baptism is so great, we felt it necessary to publish this work to be instrumental in the salvation of countless souls. We ask that after reading this book, to inform your neighbor, family, friends, and clergy about this book, lest all is lost.

  8. Josh S says:

    John, I think that judging by Platonic tendencies rapidly spreading in the Church via the 2nd century apologists, there was not as widespread a belief in original sin.

    I would compare this to subordinationism. Many early Christians were quite clearly subordinationist. Justin Martyr’s Christology was only a hair’s breadth away from Arianism. It took a visible, bitter struggle (when Arius started openly condemning orthodoxy) for the need to strongly affirm the divinity of Jesus to become very clear.

    Similarly, the importance of the doctrine of original sin and the need for infant baptism were not strikingly clear in the 2nd century. I think Augustine’s battle with Pelagius made it very clear that affirming that man is born in a state of innocence and righteousness undermines the Gospel.

    Note that I am not saying that the doctrine was not taught or needed to be developed yet. I think it was taught, believed, and practiced, but not consistently because what was not understood was its importance.

    I do think the early Church’s doctrine had something in common with the “covenant children” idea. Lutherans are always at a loss to explain why it’s wrong for a minister to baptize infants in the hospital without parents’ consent.

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