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Baptism: Another Loose End

Weekend Fisher has chimed in on her own blog with another relevant question:

If the early church held infant baptism to be of apostolic origin, on what basis would you deny that it is of apostolic origin? And if it is of apostolic origin, is there any valid basis for a Christian to reject it?

Her question is not specifically addressed to me, although it grows out of what I’ve been writing lately. It is definitely a question that deserves an answer. I approach the subject with great trepidation, however, because I really am trying to open a path for Baptists to be more accepting of the pedobaptist position, but my pedobaptist readers are justifiably cautious about where I’m coming from and where I’m going. And, unlike many other theological sticking points, I’ve never been on the other side of this one, with someone else questioning the validity of my baptism. I can only imagine the hurt that must cause, and for that reason I’m trying to hold off on using the “V” word at all until I’ve put all my cards on the table (and maybe not even then! 🙂 )

Weekend Fisher has asked about the origins of infant baptism. Perhaps I can tell her briefly what I believe with something like the objectivity and courtesy I have often seen her demonstrate on her blog.

Apostolicity

First, what does it mean for a belief or practice to be “of apostolic origin”? There seem to be at least three possible ways to define something as apostolic:

  1. Something is apostolic if it is clearly taught in the apostolic writings: the New Testament.
  2. Something is apostolic if there is strong evidence it originated among the apostles, even if none of them ever wrote it down.
  3. Something is apostolic if later generations believed that, by upholding that belief or practice, they were faithfully following in the trajectory laid out by the apostles in the first century.

By definition 1, I think almost everyone would concede that infant baptism does not rise to the level of apostolicity. There are no New Testament texts discussing infant baptism. By definition 3, many good and praiseworthy things will be added to the church’s deposit of faith. My personal short list of beliefs and practices that I would call “apostolic” by this definition would include, but is not limited to:

  1. The Apostles Creed
  2. The basic shape of the Christian liturgy (as described, for example, by Justin Martyr)
  3. Baptism as a requirement for participation in the Eucharist
  4. The threefold office of bishop, presbyter, and deacon (there, I said it)

Now, some of the things that are apostolic by definition 3 would also be apostolic by definition 2. For example, the weight of the evidence strongly suggests to me that the apostles themselves were requiring baptism before admitting people to the Lord’s Table.

Other elements clearly came later. The legend about how each of the twelve apostles contributed a line to the Apostles Creed is just that: a legend. But that doesn’t mean the Apostles Creed is not a fair and accurate summary of what the apostles taught. Similarly, the liturgy Justin Martyr describes was most definitely not how the first Christians celebrated the Eucharist, and is at certain points at odds with the New Testament evidence and even with the description of the Eucharist in the Didache (which, following Aaron Milavec, I would place roughly contemporary with Paul).

Origen’s claim for the apostolic origin of infant baptism is apparently the first such claim made in the patristic era, and it is debated how far back before Origen such convictions went. Some have argued that Origen could never have made such a claim if he had not himself been baptized as an infant, and likely also his father and grandfather. This would take us back to the first half of the second century. Others, however, note that Origen shows no acquaintance with the practice from his time in Alexandria. Rather, he may have become acquainted with the practice only when he moved to Caesarea (Beasley-Murray, 306, n. 2). This places Origen’s first exposure to the practice around 232—although obviously it must have been a longstanding practice in Caesarea before then. At any rate, Origen may have believed Peter, Paul, and the rest were the originators of infant baptism, but that doesn’t tell us where he got this information, or when, or where.

Pedobaptists would assert that infant baptism is apostolic by definition 3. I suspect for some pedobaptists, even this is not sufficient and they would argue for its inclusion under definition 2. I’m happy to let them fight that one out for themselves. 🙂

The Pew Gap

It is worth noting, however, that there may be a gap between the views of biblical scholars and the believers in the pews on this issue. Beasley-Murray notes a number of studies by and for pedobaptist groups that suggest a weakening of confessional loyalty to the position that infant baptism is of apostlic origin among scholars in pedobaptist denominations.

Lutherans. HeitmĂĽller, Im Namen Jesu (1903) was written in the conviction that believers only were baptized in the primitive church. The same position was adopted by Rendtorff (1905), Feine (1907), and Windisch (1908). According to Beasley-Murray,

It would be possible to produce an impressive list of scholars who concurred with these men in their judgment, but it should be observed that they were less responsible for the reversal of the traditional belief among New Testament scholars than symptomatic of the change that was taking place everywhere. (307)

Reformed. “The strongest statements repudiating the traditional view have come from Reformed scholars” (307). For example, Karl Barth asserted,

From the standpoint of a doctrine of baptism, infant baptism can hardly be preserved without exegetical and practical artifices and sophisms, the proof to the contrary has yet to be supplied! One wants to preserve it only if one is resolved to do so on grounds which lie outside the Biblical passages on baptism and outside the thing in itself. (308)

And Leenhardt wrote,

It is generally agreed by defenders of infant baptism that the New Testament does not offer us explicit teachings capable of settling the problem of infant baptism…. It is the evidence of the facts which lead to this established position; only the fanatics will contest it! (307)

Beasley Murray quips, “This is indeed a startling reversal of the cry, ‘Schwärmerer, Fanatics!’ addressed to the Anabaptists by both Lutherans and Reformed” (307).

Congregationalists and Methodists. In Britain, these groups have accepted the scholarly consensus that only believers baptism was practiced in the New Testament era (309).

Presbyterians. H. R. Mackintosh “was one of the few in their ranks who counseled the frank admission that the New Testament provides no evidence for infant Baptism, and T. W. Manson has been even more emphatic in stating the conviction” (309).

Anglicans. Beasley-Murray observes that “it has been the Anglican theologians…who have been most exercised in heart and conscience over this matter.” And in fact,

Unlike some of the writers we have quoted, the burden of many of their foremost scholars is not the silence of the New Testament as to infant baptism, which they admit, but still more its eloquent testimony to the fact that the theology of baptism in the Apostolic writings is consistently stated with respect to the baptism of believers. (309)

The list of Anglicans who have weighed in on the matter include N. P. Williams, Arthur Michael Ramsey (a former Archbishop of Canterbury), and liturgical scholar Gregory Dix.

In consequence to this constantly repeated assessment, the revised orders of service for baptism and confirmation (1958) “attempted to put into practice the principle that adult baptism is the norm for Christian initiation: in the service book the baptism and confirmation of adults is treated as the archetypal service and is printed first” (310).

Conclusion

If the early church held infant baptism to be of apostolic origin, on what basis would you deny that it is of apostolic origin? I would deny the apostolicity of infant baptism in the sense that the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is against it. It does not figure in the New Testament writers’ development of baptismal theology, which everywhere presupposes the faith commitment of the baptizand—as even a large number of biblical scholars in pedobaptist denominations agree, despite the practice in their churches.

This does not mean, however, that the later development of infant baptism was necessarily a step in the wrong direction. I’m glad we have the Apostles Creed, for example, and I have no problem affirming it. It may yet be proven that infant baptism is “apostolic” in the sense that it faithfully builds upon the apostolic witness: it follows a biblical trajectory, even though the actual biblical data is thin and subject to varying interpretations (I would argue this is the case, for example, with the ordination of women). If someone can make this case for me, I’ll be happy to affirm the practice as apostolic in the sense I’ve described.

And if it is of apostolic origin, is there any valid basis for a Christian to reject it? The only valid basis for a Christian to reject a belief or practice of apostolic origin is when such a belief or practice is ultimately at odds with the main thrust of the apostolic witness as it develops. For example, it may be possible to argue that the practice of circumcising male converts was “of apostolic origin.” Peter at least was at one point sympathetic to that position! But further developments suggested the Holy Spirit was moving in another direction. But that isn’t what WF means, and I know it. So no, if something is of apostolic origin, it ought to be received with gratitude by the whole church.

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2 Comments

  1. D. P. says:

    Well, when you rush off a post at lunchtime and are dealing with terminology you rarely use in real life, you make some flubs. I think I’ve finally got all the “credobaptists” turned into “pedobaptists” in the appropriate places in the above post, and have deleted the comments alerting me to my oversight(s). Thanks, Craig and Michael, for helping me out!

    Like

  2. Craig says:

    Dr. P., this is a great series. I’m thankful you’re taking the time to review these very important questions.

    Like

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