Sometime after writing my entries (Part 1, 2, 3, 4 here) on my searching with regard to baptism, I discovered that this was a topic that the Anglican gone Roman John Henry Newman wrote of regarding his defence on the doctrine of the latter tradition. I found it surprising because whilst I disagree with his conclusions actually agree with the substance of his argument. Notably on doctrines pertaining to Baptism and Original Sin. You can read the entire thing here but I’ll quote relevant sections here.
On Original Sin he wrote…
I have already remarked upon the historical fact, that the recognition of Original Sin, considered as the consequence of Adam’s fall, was, both as regards general acceptance and accurate understanding, a gradual process, not completed till the time of Augustine and Pelagius.
Which was my general point in my fourth entry on the topic of baptism. Newman then goes on to cite the example of John Chrysostom who mildly preceded the Pelagian controversy but “there are passages in his works, often quoted, which we should not expect to find worded as they stand, if they had been written fifty years later”. Stating that he believes it was the circumstances of preceeding ages that delayed the inevitable unfolding of the doctrine to the time and person of Augustine in response to Pelagius’s error.
Newman in the next section goes on to make a similar argument with regard to Baptism by giving, by way of example, Chrysostom’s words “We baptize infants, though they are not defiled with sin, that they may receive sanctity, righteousness, adoption, heirship, brotherhood with Christ, and may become His members.” as an indication of Chrysostom’s interstitial status between the emergence of the doctrine of Original sin and the universality of infant baptism. He goes on to write an extensive paragraph detailing the late baptism of many great fathers from earlier centuries…
Even in the fourth century St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, having Christian mothers, still were not baptized till they were adults. St. Gregory’s mother dedicated him to God immediately on his birth; and again when he had come to years of discretion, with the rite of taking the gospels into his hands by way of consecration. He was religiously-minded from his youth, and had devoted himself to a single life. Yet his baptism did not take place till after he had attended the schools of Cæsarea, Palestine, and Alexandria, and was on his voyage to Athens. He had embarked during the November gales, and for twenty days his life was in danger. He presented himself for baptism as soon as he got to land. St. Basil was the son of Christian confessors on both father’s and mother’s side. His grandmother Macrina, who brought him up, had for seven years lived with her husband in the woods of Pontus during the Decian persecution. His father was said to have wrought miracles; his mother, an orphan of great beauty of person, was forced from her unprotected state to abandon the hope of a single life, and was conspicuous in matrimony for her care of strangers and the poor, and for her offerings to the churches. How religiously she brought up her children is shown by the singular blessing, that four out of ten have since been canonized as Saints. St. Basil was one of these; yet the child of such parents was not baptized till he had come to man’s estate,—till, according to the Benedictine Editor, his twenty-first, and perhaps his twenty-ninth, year. St. Augustine’s mother, who is herself a Saint, was a Christian when he was born, though his father was not. Immediately on his birth, he was made a catechumen; in his childhood he fell ill, and asked for baptism. His mother was alarmed, and was taking measures for his reception into the Church, when he suddenly got better, and it was deferred. He did not receive baptism till the age of thirty-three, after he had been for nine years a victim of Manichæan error. In like manner, St. Ambrose, though brought up by his mother and holy nuns, one of them his own sister St. Marcellina, was not baptized till he was chosen bishop at the age of about thirty-four, nor his brother St. Satyrus till about the same age, after the serious warning of a shipwreck. St. Jerome too, though educated at Rome, and so far under religious influences, as, with other boys, to be in the observance of Sunday, and of devotions in the catacombs, had no friend to bring him to baptism, till he had reached man’s estate and had travelled.
The point of this is to show change over time in an attempt to undermine the Protestant appeal to a truth outside of both the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and history. In his final, much briefer, paragraph on the topic he writes…
Now how are the modern sects, which protest against infant baptism, to be answered by Anglicans with this array of great names in their favour? By the later rule of the Church surely; by the dicta of some later Saints, as by St. Chrysostom; by one or two inferences from Scripture; by an argument founded on the absolute necessity of Baptism for salvation,—sufficient reasons certainly, but impotent to reverse the fact that neither in Dalmatia nor in Cappadocia, neither in Rome, nor in Africa, was it then imperative on Christian parents, as it is now, to give baptism to their young children. It was on retrospect and after the truths of the Creed had sunk into the Christian mind, that the authority of such men as St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustine brought round the orbis terrarum to the conclusion, which the infallible Church confirmed, that observance of the rite was the rule, and the non-observance the exception.
Which is effectively saying that the Reformers, whilst claiming to be discerning the infallible and unchanging doctrine of scripture on the topic of baptism, are in fact not doing so but merely inheriting the practice of their predecessors. A practice which doesn’t actually even fulfil the rubric of the Vincentian Canon. Infant baptism is notably ‘not’ a practice that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. One can perhaps argue for historicity, one cannot justifiably argue for universality in scope nor even perhaps recognition.
This is why Manning, Newman’s contemporary declared it a “treason and heresy” to appeal to history. It circumvents the magisterium which was instrumental in making these landmark decisions in the history of the church. The Protestant appeal to history is one I affirm but here I think Newman shows up that the Anglicans (and other Reformers) did not fully work out the conclusions of their appeal which was linked to scripture by, as Newman states “one or two inferences from Scripture” which is still “ impotent to reverse the fact that neither in Dalmatia nor in Cappadocia, neither in Rome, nor in Africa, was it then imperative on Christian parents, as it is now, to give baptism to their young children”.
Newman, whilst coming from a very different place I think shares many of the same readings I do of historical events. Which I why I think the truly Protestant approach to baptism is not a strict paedobaptist nor credobaptist position. It’s a mixed or dual-use that places the normative emphasis on catechetical instruction and a broader pattern of Preparation/Exorcism, Baptism, Chrismation, and Communion. There is no reason to delay communion, no reason to delay confirmation. Was Chrysostom acclaimed or atrophied for his baptism at 18? Was Basil strengthened or stunted by his at 27? Was Gregory fortified or floundering by his baptism at 30? Was Ambrose helped or hampered by his at 34? Whatever you believe it is a mistake to assume such conduct was not the domain of godly men and women nor without precedence in the Church. I would even go so far that a theology which excludes the possibility of such practice is insufficiently Protestant. Many I have spoken to on this topic refused to engage with or acknowledge such practices. Arguing they were aberrations, unrepresentative or not worth considering. So in this, I found Newman’s writing refreshingly barefaced.
The broader issue with Newman’s reasoning is that it inculcates a form of progressivism. We have seen this recently with Pope Francis’s declarations on the Death Penalty in our own day. This progressivism is also not the position of Christians throughout history as we have seen in examining John of Damascus’s appeal to ‘unchanging’ tradition for the worship of images. With Newman’s doctrine, the truth isn’t the determinative factor, the Magisterium of the day is. Beliefs of prior centuries can be post-facto explained as the product of ‘circumstances’ rather than right reason. In this light, it is impossible to disprove Newman’s argumentation because it is always after the fact. This is the weakness of Newman’s argument, it isn’t really an argument. His reading of history, however, on this matter is well-measured.