Thoughts on Infant Baptism and the Nature of the Church

Both Fr. Greg and Abu Daoud have weighed in on this post, itself a follow-up to my reflections on the Orthodox view of the Eucharist.  Let me respond to both and, in doing so, make some observations about these two important subjects.

To start with the end of Fr. Greg’s response: on a practical level, not all churches which practice believers’ baptism apply the concept of the age of accountability as rigidly as the one you described did.  Pentecostal churches can be very flexible about this.  I am a member of a local church that thinks nothing of baptising five and six year olds.  Some of these children make more coherent declarations of faith than the adults!  Some churches need to lighten up on this issue.

Getting back to the beginning, we really don’t know that the church baptised infants from the start.  The evidence, in fact, leads in the opposite direction, at least in the first century and a half.  We do know that infant baptism wasn’t the enforced norm until the end of the Western Roman Empire (don’t stick the knife in that our end collapsed first.)  One major reason for this was the fact that people delayed baptism because of the severities of the penitential system.  For some people, baptism represented their last rites!  Probably the most illustrious example of this was the Emperor Constantine, who presided over the most important gathering in the history of the church (Nicea I) unbaptised!  But he had spiritual advisors such as Eusebius of Caeserea, which shows that they don’t make bishops like they used to.  (Ambrose of Milan was another example of an unbaptised person thrust into a high profile Christian position.)

But that gets to Abu Daoud’s point: the nature of baptism is tied to the nature of the church.  And that’s where the problem is.  The triumph of infant baptism as the enforced norm of the church came hand in hand with the lowering of the church’s standards as to what it expected out of its people.  Once the penitential system fell down, the risk of baptising an infant relative to their subsequent conduct dropped as well.  One of the thing that fuelled the whole monastic movement was that men and women desired a higher walk with God that was unavailable in normal parish and diocesan life.  Although this also was driven by Late Roman social forces, if real life in Christ is that hard to find in a church, you’ve got problems.  And I experienced some of those both in TEC and the RCC.

Believers’ baptism speaks of a higher standard for Christians.  Since you brought up parental control over children, a good start would be for churches such as yours to give parents an open option regarding their children’s baptism.  But a better way would be to lower the age at which children’s declaration of faith in Jesus Christ is accepted a valid in preparation for baptism.

Let me say that I am aware that real life produces results that don’t always go with the ideal.  I had some fun on the very issue of baptism and salvation while writing this.

And now I can turn to Fr. Greg’s matter of ecclesiology.  I dealt with that issue (from a RCC perspective, at least) a long time ago in my piece We May Not Be a Church After All.  I’m fairly confident, however, that most of what I said applies to Orthodox churches as well.  But I think I need to make some further exposition relative to how I view the history of the church, because I tend to formulate things historically rather than theologically.

There are basically two ideas of what the history of the church is about.

The RCC/Anglican/Orthodox view is that Jesus Christ founded one church with his Apostles, and their successors constitute the only true church.  All the rest are schismatics.  The tricky part comes in when the successors don’t agree.  This can be interpreted as proof that these churches do in fact have the apostolic chrism, because the originals argued amongst themselves over who would be first as they do now.

The Protestant/Evangelical view is that Jesus Christ came to found a church based on his written Word and the body of believers’ faithful adherence to same.  All the rest are lost as geese.  The tricky part comes in that, since they deny their churches to be active redemptive agents, their assumption that everyone else are lost as geese cannot be automatically assumed.

I don’t really adhere to either school.  IMHO, the apostolic succession churches were the “original plan,” so to speak.  But their failure to effectively challenge their flocks to experience the radical transforming power of the risen Saviour–which is essential to eternal life–led to the raising up of other groups which would do the job.  I describe this process in an Anglican/Evangelical context in Taming the Rowdies, but other examples can be found.

Finally, to answer Abu Daoud’s question about the definition of a sacrament, as I explained to my Pentecostal bretheren some time back, I still prefer the Prayer Book one: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  But the differences between the two are minor.  However, I have come to realise that the integrity of any sacramental system–and the grace derived therefrom–depends on prior volition.  And that’s a major problem with infant baptism.

Fr. Greg mentioned that the arguments for infant baptism came after it was ensconced in the practice of the church.  But this may be an example of a method that a Russian friend attributed to his own people: act first, think later.  Perhaps this is one reason why they were herded into the Dniepr so willingly for their own first Orthodox baptism over one thousand years ago.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Infant Baptism and the Nature of the Church”

  1. Wow…

    I really appreciate the intelligent, thoughtful, and eirenic tenor of these posts, Don.

    While I obviously don’t agree with your analysis of the facts regarding infant baptism in the early Church (to me, the evidence suggests that infant baptism was the norm in the very early Church, but that during the third and fourth centuries, many people, for various reasons, delayed baptism, as you mention). I do agree with more of this post than you might expect, particularly the “Plan B” part, especially in the West. I don’t see y’all as “schismatics” as much as “separated brethren”. What I find interesting is, at this point, a Protestant tracjectory that begins with Arminius, moves to Wesley (and others, such as the Pietists), and continues with the Holiness and then the Pentecostal movements, is now culminating in a return to Rome and especially, Eastern Orthodoxy. Then, of course, there are phenonmena such as the Charismatic Episcopal Church…

    I would also like to point out that when a given community/movement/Church grows beyond a certain point, having to deal with “wheat and weeds” is inevitable. (This is a given: it becomes problemmatic on an ecclesiological level when, among other things, the “weeds” get control of the structure, as with TEC.) As you point out, this was one of the downsides of the legalization of Christianity by Constantine, but it didn’t begin there. Eusebius, in his “Church History”, sees the last great persecution before Constantine as being Divine judgement on a worldly Church. However, it is an issue that has always been present in all forms of Protestantism as well, which is why, perhaps, these various movements have sprouted. I was reading a bit of R. A. Torrey last night; you would have thought he was writing two days ago.

    As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a rather interesting faith environment which included inputs from generic Evangelicalism (Christian & Missionary Alliance), the Holiness Movement (Church of the Nazarene), Pentecostalism (Assemblies of God), Fundamentalist Baptists (an Aunt and others), and, as a teenager, Charismatic Renewal (in the United Methodist and RC Churches) and the Jesus movement. However, in the area in which I was raised, my family and I were members of a definite religious minority, a sub-culture in which the dominant traditions were Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism (both of which have subsequently been strongly influenced by Charismatic Renewal in that locale). Given that, growing up, while I perceived that nominalism was common among these Lutherans and Roman Catholics, I saw no such thing as a nominal Baptist, Pentecostal, or what-have-you.

    Then, as a young man, I came to South Carolina and encountered a great mass of nominal Baptists and yes, Holiness people and Pentecostals, none of whom praticed infant baptism. My main point, then, besides the “wheat and weeds” thing, is that one cannot lay this problem at the feet of infant baptism and leave it at that, especially given that, over the entire history of the Church, plenty of people, having been baptized as infants, have grown seamlessly into being devout and commited Christians as adults.

    Again, thanks for this great conversation, Brother.

  2. One other thing: I think that infant baptism became an issue in the West because of the way in which the RCC disrupted the process of sacramental initiation, delaying Confirmation and first Holy Communion (and eventually, switching the order of the latter two in most cases). In the East, the norm has long been, if not always, that everyone, infants and adults, is baptized, chrismated, and given first Holy Communion in one liturgy and in that order. Further, afterward, small children regularly recieve Holy Communion from that point on. The “Sacrament/Mystery of Commitment” then becomes, not Confirmation, but first Confession, administered when the parents and the pastor perceive that the child is ready for/in need of it.

  3. Good morning. I followed the link from Fr. Greg’s site to this conversation, mainly as a Star Trek fan. I mean, VulcanHammer… c’mon!

    Anyway, I read through your post… interesting stuff!

    I consider myself a Primitive Catholic, adhering to the basic beliefs of the Ante-Nicene Church as best I can in a modern world. Baptism is an issue that is a tricky one for all Christians… and one that has taken on a whole new meaning for me of late.

    I was baptized in the Roman Church at the age of 7 after having made my own profession of faith (by affirming the Apostles’ Creed). Of late I have become a strong proponent of recieving and anointing infants as Catechumens and then baptizing them when they can make their own confession.

    Part of my conviction stems from my acceptance in an Eastern view of Original Sin… we all inherit the consequences of Original Sin (i.e., death and a degree of separation from God) but we are not all held guilty for what we ourselves have not personally done (i.e., infants don’t willfully sin). If we believe that being unbaptized is a damning problem, it leaves all of the millions of aborted babies in this country and around the world in eternal flames… all because they had no say in being born or a chance to be baptized. Call it human frailty or excuses, but I don’t believe God to be that cruel.

    So, anyway… my preference would be to claim a child for Christ through the Catechumenate, teach them until they understood the faith and asked to be baptized, and then baptize, chrismate, and commune them together at once.

    That being said, I think that Scripture is clearly silent on the issue of infant baptism (claiming that phrases like ‘whole household’ include children is a bit of a problem, as we don’t know the makeup of those households – we aren’t sure if they did or did not have kids there), and the early Church isn’t united in their witness about the issue. As a result, I will accept someone’s baptism if they were baptized in infancy, since Scripture does clearly teach one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. (I would probably guide them through Chrismation/Confirmation classes and require a public confession of faith from such an individual, though, upon recieving them into the Church.)

    Thanks for your article!

    Rob+

  4. Thanks for a fascinating and informative discussion of an important topic. Of course, as a Pentecostal Christian I’m more in alignment with Don on Eucharist/Communion and Water Baptism, especially regarding infant or adult (I prefer the old Anabaptist term, “believer’s baptism” indicating age is not really the issue but personal faith) reception/participation. However, although a bit afield for the present conversation, I suppose Pentecostals could learn much from exploring the Wesleyan emphasis on sacraments (or if we prefer, ordinances)as “means of grace.” In other words, though the memorial aspect and symbolic meaning are important they are insufficient alone. Admittedly, we must guard against mechanisitc sacramentalism, of which, for me anyway, infant baptism is an unfortunate example. Nevertheless, we ought to be ready to acknowledge that the mystery of Christ’s gracious presence and power is signified and experienced through the activity of the Holy Spirit in the believing and reverent heart of the participant/recipient (cf Paul’s discussion in 1 Co 11).

Leave a Reply