A Discussion from Scripture, Tradition and Reason

While the majority of Christians continue to accept the Baptism of infants as valid an efficacious, the majority of protestants throughout the world have rejected the practice. This paper explores from the lens of Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition and human reason the questions of whether or not it is possible for an infant to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and whether or not it is necessary for an infant to receive Holy Baptism.

Introduction

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Christ himself is recorded as charging all Christians to, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[1] In Anglicanism, Holy Baptism has been emphasized as being one of the core features of the Prayer Book for safeguarding unity[2] as well as a basic formulary of the Anglican identity.[3] Yet despite these virtues of unity, the fulfilment of the Great Commission is something which has brought about doctrinal division within the Christian community. The true point of contention in this disunity is who ought to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, or rather when they ought to receive it. More plainly, one of the greatest points of visible disunity between Christians is between those who accept the validity of both infant and adult or believer’s baptism, and those who view only adult or believer’s baptism exclusively as being valid.[4] In Anglicanism, infant Baptism has been normative to the point that no form of Baptism for adults was provided in the Prayer Book until the 1662 edition,[5] whereas to some Protestants stemming from an Anabaptist tradition were advocates of re-baptism, in spite of St Paul’s statement that we have only one Baptism,[6] for those who had been baptised as infants, viewing it as being invalid by reason of lack of faith and also, especially during the time of the Radical Reformation, suggesting that infant baptism was in the name of the Pope rather than God.[7]

This paper seeks to explore the possibility and necessity of infant baptism using the Anglican theological method of looking to Holy Scripture, the Tradition of the Church and human reason. I will show that infant baptism is consistent with God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament, that it is consistent with the practice of Christ’s Church since the time of the Apostle’s, and that reason shows it to be a desirable, if not necessary, practice.

Holy Scripture

While there are many references to Baptism in Scripture, both in terms of the command to baptise others as well as stories of particular people being baptised, there is no Biblical treatise explaining the exact nature or impact of Baptism. Martin Luther taught that Holy Baptism was every person’s ordination to ministry and mission for God, a starting place for our vocations as the priesthood of all believers.[8] In the Anglican tradition, the Book of Common Prayer and Thirty-Nine Articles articulate some details. In the Prayer Book, the opening exhortation of the rite for Baptism suggests that,

seeing that God willeth all men to be saved from the fault and corruption of the nature which they inherit… and that our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be born anew of Water and of the Holy Spirit I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that he will grant to this Child that which by nature he cannot have; that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Spirit, and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made a living member of the same.[9]

This lays out several basic principles. God desires the salvation of all of humanity from the corruption of sin, and Christ has taught (St Jn 3. 5) that it is through Baptism that you enter into salvation. That something is granted which is unobtainable by nature suggests Baptism brings with it an ontological change in the candidate, and finally the prayer states that the person is received into Christ’s Church as a living member. This largely reaffirms the doctrines articulated in Article XXVII, which clarifies that Baptism involves “Regeneration or new Birth,” and “adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost.”[10]

While some Christian traditions would object to this, for instance those who reject the sacraments or who disagree with the association of Regeneration with Baptism, there is actually a good deal of agreement on many of these characteristics. The World Council of Churches has identified several characteristics generally agreed upon by Christians with respect to Baptism, which includes that: Baptism was established by Christ himself, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and that faith is necessary in Baptism in order to gain salvation.[11] Given the congruence of these characteristics with the Anglican definition, they will be used as a baseline for understanding Baptism as the more deeply divisive question of whether or not, as the Prayer Book says, “The Baptism of young Children is… most agreeable with the institution of Christ.”[12]

In the form of Baptism described, it is initiatory and nothing, prima facie, would prevent either adult or infant Baptism,[13] but given the Anglican theological method, the Scriptural witness must be more closely consulted first, and not simply consider reason alone. Since the Reformation, theologians have grappled with the Scriptural witness with respect to the possibility of baptising infants. A key component of the Scriptural debate involves the mass and household baptisms witnessed in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 2, 10, and 16) and the question of whether or not children were present and baptised. ANS Lane, summarizing the corpus of exegetical debate on this, suggests that there is no explicit answer to the question of whether or not infants may receive Baptism.[14] In that light, the Scriptural witness must be consulted as to the range of what is permitted. For instance, with respect to the Lord’s Supper, the Scriptural witness attests to the presence only of the twelve. Yet women, and indeed children, receive the Eucharist today because it is viewed as being consistent with Christ’s teachings, and the mere fact that women and children are not explicitly told to receive is not viewed as conclusive proof they are not meant to.

Perhaps the most compelling Scriptural witness comes from the Old Testament, and the model of the Covenant with Abraham and circumcision as a sign of the Covenant. Heinrich Bullinger noted that, “The covenant was made not only with Abraham, a rational adult, but also with his children; and it was made not just for five thousand years but for ever.”[15] If children were incorporated into the Covenant in the old testament, why would they be prohibited from entering into the new? Christ himself rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him.[16] Finally, in St Paul’s epistles his instructions to the churches sometimes explicitly provide instructions to children[17] where the children are addressed as Christians already, suggesting they had already been baptised.[18]

Lane concludes that while the Scriptural evidence may not provide a definitive answer, “there are passages which may plausibly be interpreted as implying that infants were baptised… there is no New Testament evidence at all for the later baptism of Christian children.”[19] With this Scriptural diversity in mind, the question then becomes one of how the Church interpreted the Apostolic teachings, and what it practiced with respect to Holy Baptism.

Holy Tradition

Many of the Church Fathers spoke on the issue of baptising infants. One of the earliest writings on this comes from St Justin Martyr who said that many men and women, “have been Christ’s disciples from childhood.”[20] While this is not explicit in reference to Baptism, it is consistent with the practice and Scriptural witness that if you are a believer you would be baptised. St Gregory of Nazianzen, writing in the fourth century, was far more explicit. “Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit.”[21] He was also clear that he linked his views on infant baptism to the Old Testament practices of circumcision on the eighth day, which was “conferred on children before they had the use of reason,” which is a chief complaint of many opponents of infant baptism today.[22]

Writing in the third century, and confirmed in the early 5th century by the Council of Carthage, St Cyprian of Carthage argued in favour of infant baptism, “so that as far as possible no souls are lost.”[23] John McKenna notes that regardless of the lack of explicit Scriptural witness, the practice was almost universal by the time St Cyprian was writing.[24]

Another early father, Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd century, opposed the practice of infant baptism, but on practical pastoral grounds, concerning himself chiefly with sins committed after baptism. He advocated delaying baptism until the candidate had matured, but never argued that the practice was not apostolic.[25] The fact that he did not suggest it was not apostolic, and the fact that he argued against it, suggests that it was a common practice by the mid-second century when he was born, and not an innovation of his time. Moreover, there was no doctrinal objection to the practice of infant baptism until the 16th century when the Anabaptists and other more radical reformers begin to outline theological objections.[26]

What is perhaps the most telling of these, and the other accounts by the fathers, is that the practice was quite widespread. There are attestations relating to infant baptism from Tertullian, Hyppolytus and Origen, and from their geographical diversity it seems that infant baptism can be concluded to have been well-established throughout the Roman Empire by the last quarter of the second century.[27] It is also notable that many of these same fathers viewed infant baptism through the lens of circumcision: that it was the New Testament equivalent, and perfectly reasonable to be applied at the same age as circumcision had been in order to bring the children of Christian families into Christ’s family.[28]

Taken together, this suggests that the Scriptural witness was understood by the early Church to, at the least, permit infant baptism, and that it was consistent with Apostolic teaching and practice. There was, however, a diversity of practice, even if that diversity was not created by doctrinal objections to the practice of infant baptism, but rather more practical or pastoral concerns.

With Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition providing the parameters of orthodoxy in which the praxis of Holy Baptism, including the baptism of infants, is understood and accepted, God-given reason may be applied to conclude on its necessity. Fr R. M. Benson, the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist, observed that, “In Western Christendom, the Holy Eucharist has so entirely overshadowed Holy Baptism, that the food of our life is made to be a gift greater than the life that sustains us.”[29] Louis Weil highlights this sentiment in the contemporary Church in which some have sought to go to an extreme of this debate, suggesting that Baptism is no longer needed at all.[30] Addressing Fr Benson’s point about the centrality and purpose of Holy Baptism seems to be where the question of necessity will then be answered.

Statements of faith have been a component of all early Church rites of Baptism,[31] and the inability of the candidate to affirm this makes infant baptism unacceptable to those in the Anabaptist tradition.[32] Those traditions which accept the validity of infant baptism do so on the basis of the faith of others making the profession for the candidate,[33] with special rites allowing the candidate to later take ownership of the professions made on their behalf.[34] The question of the viability of this practice seems to stem from the purpose of those affirmations of faith. Liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw concludes that, “the original purpose of the act of faith in early baptismal rites both Eastern and Western seems to have been to articulate the change of ownership and allegiance of the candidate, from the devil to Christ.”[35] This conclusion is supported by the Christian East, where the emphasis of Baptism always remained on the, “incorporation into Christ’s community which counterbalanced an attempt of the powers of death or sin to seduce Adam’s offspring into personal sin.”[36]

While an eschatological and salvific efficacy of Baptism should not be discounted, a reorientation in this direction as the primary purpose and consequence of Baptism also helps to counter the claims for the need for reason in the candidate in order to make a personal profession of faith at the time of Baptism. The structure of these affirmations of faith, given their original Roman cultural context, suggests that they emphasized not so much the beliefs of the candidate, but, “a contract between the candidate and the triune God than as constituting subscription to specific articles of faith.”[37] Again going back to the Old Testament, this becomes no different in practice, as relates to covenant, than circumcision. More notably, Bullinger cites the activity of God causing St John the Baptist to leap in the womb of St Elizabeth at the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary as being evidence that God can and does actively work in the lives of infants in the ways suggested by these rites.[38]

Human Reason

What benefits can be ascertained from infant baptism if the purpose is viewed in these terms? Human reason suggests they are significant:

From birth, if not before, an infant is affected by his/her social context. Sociology, psychology, and anthropology abound with examples and theories about this phenomenon. For instance, sociologists speak of “socialization,” a process which brings about internalization of a society’s values and attitudes… The social context thus affects, in this case the infant, ontologically; there is a real lack or tendency in a child born into a setting or community in which mutual love is lacking among its members. In other words, an infant born into a sinful society is affected, really affected by that society’s orientation.[39]

Infant baptism is thus initiatory, formative and provides a social context in the family of God in which the new Christian grows deeper into the reality into which they have been initiated. The emphasis is not on combatting an Augustinian notion of original sin in the event of infant death, as became prevalent in the 5th century and onward in the West,[40] but rather about how the infant might be supported and formed into union, “with Christ which completes this life and lasts forever.”[41]

Conclusion

This paper has sought to examine the possibility and necessity of the practice of infant baptism through the Anglican theological method of Scripture, Tradition and reason. While not explicit, the Scriptural witness strongly implies the practice of infant baptism, and certainly provides more support for the practice than opposition to it. Similarly, the earliest witness of the Church Fathers strongly implies that it was an Apostolic practice, and was used everywhere, always, though not by all. Taken together, they create a clear-cut case for the validity of infant baptism. Reason can then be applied to determine the question of necessity, and unsurprisingly, reason finds that infant baptism while not esse is certainly bene esse, and ought to be encouraged in order to allow the infant to be raised not just in a community of believers, but in communion with God.

Endnotes

[1] St Mt 28:19.

[2] Resolution 74 of Lambeth Conference 1958, “The Book of Common Prayer—Prayer Book Revision,” accessed July 31, 2017, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/resources/document-library/lambeth-conference/1958/resolution-74-the-book-of-common-prayer-prayer-book-revision?author=Lambeth+Conference&year=1958.

[3] Anglican Church of Canada, “The Lambeth Quadrilateral,” accessed July 31, 2017, http://www.anglican.ca/about/beliefs/lambeth-quadrilateral/.

[4] Fernando Enns, “The Exclusivity of Adult Baptism and the Inclusivity of Infant Baptism – Dialoguing with Mennonites: Consensus, Convergences and Divergences, Differences, and Desiderata,” The Ecumenical Review 67, no. 3 (2015), 395f.

[5] John W B Hill and Rowena Roppelt, “Christian initiation in the Anglican Communion,” Anglican Theological Review 95, no. 3 (2013), 422.

[6] Eph 4:5.

[7] W P Stephens, “Bullinger’s defence of infant baptism in debate with the Anabaptists,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 4, no. 2 (2002), 175.

[8] David T. Williams, “The baptism of anticipation: Once more the infant baptism debate,” Religion & Theology 2, no. 1 (1995), 81f.

[9] Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Common Prayer, (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1962), 523.

[10] Ibid., 709.

[11] Enns, “The Exclusivity of Adult Baptism and the Inclusivity of Infant Baptism,” 402.

[12] BCP, 709.

[13] Williams, “The baptism of anticipation: Once more the infant baptism debate,” 72.

[14] A N S Lane, “Did the apostolic church baptise babies?: a seismological approach.” Tyndale Bulletin 55, no. 1 (2004), 111.

[15] Cited in Stephens, “Bullinger’s defence of infant baptism in debate with the Anabaptists,” 171.

[16] St Mk 10:14.

[17] Eph 6:1-4; Col. 3:20.

[18] Lane, “Did the apostolic church baptise babies?,” 129.

[19] Ibid., 128f.

[20] St Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, 15 (ANF 1:132).

[21] St Gregory of Nazianzen, Orat. 40.17 (NPNF 7:365).

[22] St Gregory of Nazianzen, Orat. 40.28 (NPNF 7:370).

[23] John H. McKenna, “Infant Baptism: Theological Reflections,” Worship 70, no. 3 (1996), 196.

[24] Ibid., 195.

[25] Lane, “Did the apostolic church baptise babies?,” 114.

[26] Ibid., 124.

[27] Ibid., 118.

[28] Williams, “The baptism of anticipation: Once more the infant baptism debate,” 172.

[29] Cited in Louis Weil, “Baptism as the model for a sacramental aesthetic,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 2 (2010), 261.

[30] Ibid., 269.

[31] Paul F Bradshaw, “The profession of faith in early Christian baptism,” The Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2006), 102.

[32] Enns, “The Exclusivity of Adult Baptism and the Inclusivity of Infant Baptism,” 400f.

[33] Bradshaw, “The profession of faith in early Christian baptism,” 114.

[34] Enns, “The Exclusivity of Adult Baptism and the Inclusivity of Infant Baptism,” 402.

[35] Bradshaw, “The profession of faith in early Christian baptism,” 112.

[36] McKenna, “Infant Baptism,” 198.

[37] Bradshaw, “The profession of faith in early Christian baptism,” 109.

[38] Stephens, “Bullinger’s defence of infant baptism in debate with the Anabaptists,” 185.

[39] McKenna, “Infant Baptism,” 199f.

[40] Ibid., 197.

[41] Ibid., 206.

Primary References

Anglican Church of Canada. Book of Common Prayer. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1962.

Anglican Church of Canada. “The Lambeth Quadrilateral.” Accessed July 31, 2017. http://www.anglican.ca/about/beliefs/lambeth-quadrilateral/.

Gregory Nazianzen. “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen.” Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. In vol. 7 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894.

Justin Martyr. “The First Apology of Justin.” Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. In vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Resolution 74 of Lambeth Conference 1958. “The Book of Common Prayer—Prayer Book Revision.” Accessed July 31, 2017. http://www.anglicancommunion.org/resources/document-library/lambeth-conference/1958/resolution-74-the-book-of-common-prayer-prayer-book-revision?author=Lambeth+Conference&year=1958.

Secondary References

Bradshaw, Paul F. “The profession of faith in early Christian baptism.” The Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2006): 101-115.

Enns, Fernando. “The Exclusivity of Adult Baptism and the Inclusivity of Infant Baptism – Dialoguing with Mennonites: Consensus, Convergences and Divergences, Differences, and Desiderata.” The Ecumenical Review 67, no. 3 (2015): 395-410.

Hill, John W B, and Rowena Roppelt. “Christian initiation in the Anglican Communion.” Anglican Theological Review 95, no. 3 (2013): 419-434.

Lane, A N S. “Did the apostolic church baptise babies?: a seismological approach.” Tyndale Bulletin 55, no. 1 (2004): 109-130.

McKenna, John H. “Infant Baptism: Theological Reflections.” Worship 70, no. 3 (1996): 194-210.

Stephens, W P. “Bullinger’s defence of infant baptism in debate with the Anabaptists.” Reformation & Renaissance Review 4, no. 2 (2002): 168-189.

Weil, Louis. “Baptism as the model for a sacramental aesthetic.” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 2 (2010): 259-270.

Williams, David T. “The baptism of anticipation: Once more the infant baptism debate.” Religion & Theology 2, no. 1 (1995): 72-86.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s