On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Two: Witness of the Early Church

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Two: Witness of the Early Church

In the first part of this endeavour, I took a brief top-level view at the passages that had been raised by others, from scripture, during my discussions and reading on the topic on the timing of baptism. What I hope to subsequently address in this next, albeit not final part of my exploration is the witness and testimony of the early Christians. I will look at writings but also the lifestyle of those who walked the earth during this period to see what we may draw on the timing of baptism. I have ordered the following relevant statements chronologically and will close the section focusing on a number of questions or topics that have been raised in my mind as a result before closing with a conclusion and an introduction to my next topic in this investigation.

Early Writings

Didache (1st Century AD)

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The Didache, Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism.

The Didache, to my knowledge, is the earliest (I believe) text outside of scripture we have on baptism. The relevant chapter on baptism is helpful in that it gives not just a theology of baptism but a guide to its practice. In this we see baptism done, by name of the Trinity. With something of a flow-chart detailing the ideal form of water available.

I discovered this text years after my own baptism but was encouraged to note this pattern was followed when I was baptised myself. That my own would have, I imagine, looked recognisable to the original recipients of this text. I think it’s also worth noting the encouragement for all involved to fast in advance of baptism. There is no explicit confession required, which suggests perhaps those unable could still be baptised. This would, however, neglect the line “having first said all these things” indicating a catechetical element to the baptism. This line highlights that the first 6 chapters of the Didache actually, in some way, formed the liturgical structure of a baptism. Moreso, the command to fast, without exception (despite the Didache not shying from an exception in other areas, as on the nature of water to be used) does suggest a maturity of some degree on the part of that recipient. In any case, we do not see a bifurcation of the act and its preparation that can arise in classical paedobaptist justifications. The reading here seems more indicative of a believers baptism, yet one may say this does not eliminate the possibility of an infant baptism. However, to do so is based arguably not just on the absence of evidence, but despite it.

Epistle of Barnabas (Early 2nd Century AD)

…Mark how He has described at once both the water and the cross. For these words imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time: then He declares, I will recompense them. But now He says, Their leaves shall not fade. This means, that every word which proceeds out of your mouth in faith and love shall tend to bring conversion and hope to many. Again, another prophet says, And the land of Jacob shall be extolled above every land. (Zephaniah 3:19) This means the vessel of His Spirit, which He shall glorify. Further, what says He? And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees, and whosoever shall eat of them shall live forever. (Ezekiel 47:12) This means, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever, This means: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear you speaking, and believe, shall live forever.

Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 11. Baptism and the cross prefigured in the Old Testament.

The Epistle of Barnabas is worthy of mention because of its articulation of baptism as something by which “we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.” which suggests a form of regeneration occurs in the act that is explicitly connected to a living faith / trust in Jesus. Again the language of fruit is invoked making us think of its mention in Galatians and linking baptism with the deposit of the Holy Spirit.

Clement of Rome (35-101 AD)

For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments. For thus also says the Scripture in Ezekiel, If Noah, Job, and Daniel should rise up, they should not deliver their children in captivity. Now, if men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found possessed of works of holiness and righteousness?

2 Clement Chapter 6

Clement’s letter is interesting in that it grants agency to the recipient of baptism regarding whether or not they manage to keep it ‘holy and undefiled’. It places incredible emphasis on personal holiness and purity. It is also indicative of a mode of thinking that may explain the practice of actually putting off baptism until such a time where someone seems suitably prepared to undertake it or is running out of time (rightly or wrongly). Well known examples of those who were not baptised till later in life, despite being converted or raised in the faith included, but weren’t limited to Constantine the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephrem the Syrian, Augustine of Hippo, and even his opponent Pelagius. It is an articulation which lends weight to Tertullian’s later statement “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay.”

I find this passage challenging because I must confess that when I first began to read the scriptures for myself as a teenage I subconsciously agreed with this sentiment. One of the things that made me hesitant about baptism was that I didn’t think I could match up to what would subsequently be expected of me. This didn’t ultimately stop me, and the age I was baptised was considerably younger than some I mentioned above. Yet I can imagine these men thinking something similar regarding baptism, especially when we take into account Clement’s words above.

To baptise without proper catechism seems to increase the likelihood of someone baptised as a child defiling their baptism. This is particularly sobering when we read Clement’s words…

“If men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled?”

Which seems to speak against the idea that a child might share in the righteousness of their parent’s faith when devoid of their own.

Justin Martyr (100 – 160 AD)

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (John 3:5) Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. (Isaiah 1:16-20)

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

First Apology, Chapter 61

Justin Martyr’s his detailing of baptism is worthy of note particularly when he says “we were born without our own knowledge or choice” regarding our physical birth and then “in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge.” Presenting birth via baptism as something of an opposite number to natural birth.

Justin Martyr also articulates the first birth as that “of our parents coming together” which would be a term equally applicable to the covenantal perspective of the Reformed tradition of baptism being accessed on the agency of the parent. That child might be grandfathered into the Church on the basis of their parent’s faith until they can have their own. Instead, he frames baptism as the natural course of action for those who are “persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly.” Again we see no bifurcation here in Justin Martyr’s description of baptism as a response to coming to trust in Jesus. He calls such a thing illumination (“this washing is called illumination”) because “they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings” linking understanding to the act of washing and “he who is illuminated is washed” suggesting that baptism is in part a response to the fact that someone has already begun to be illuminated. This to me speaks to a form of feedback, as we are illuminated we are brought to baptism in order to grow in our illumination before the light of Christ’s work in us and the world. This seems inevitably predicated on a capacity for understanding.

Elsewhere Justin Martyr writes…

We, who have approached God through Him, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it.

Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 43

Here Justin Martyr explicitly links spiritual circumcision through baptism. One may deduce from this that baptism is either functioning as an act independently effectual on the subject or by contrast, and going on Justin’s earlier writings explicitly dependant on us being “persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly.” The latter seems the more consistent with Justin Martyr’s own witness.

I’ve had some comments here that when the author says they “were brought up in bad habits and wicked training” he is referring to people from an unbelieving background but I believe that by his subsequent distinction between children of ignorance and those “of choice and knowledge” we see the emphasis still firmly resting on choice as an active agent.

Irenaeus of Lyon (130 – 202 AD)

For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence, (Colossians 1:18) the Prince of life, (Acts 3:15) existing before all, and going before all.

Against Heresies Book 2:22:4

Neither, for a like reason, would he have given them baptism so readily, had he not heard them prophesying when the Holy Ghost rested upon them. And therefore did he exclaim, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” He persuaded, at the same time, those that were with him, and pointed out that, unless the Holy Ghost had rested upon them, there might have been someone who would have raised objections to their baptism.

Against Heresies, Book 3:12

Irenaeus is probably the first person (chronologically) I’ve seen actively put forward by those who advocate the baptism of newborns. This rests on the passage… “For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men”. Every age is sanctified by Christ’s incarnation, he did not scorn any aspect of the human condition. That by Irenaeus’s use of ‘born again to God’ we might suggest all ages can be born again to God, that is to be baptised. This is an inference but I am happy to admit that this does seem a fairly unambiguous one. Since we don’t have an explicit reference in scripture I think this is worth taking note of. Is it talking more about the incarnation, baptism, or both? I think Irenaeus’s assertion here is talking about both yet I think we can see this jarring with Justin Martyr’s earlier framing of baptism as an act by which we become children of “choice and knowledge”.

Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 AD)

This is the one grace of illumination, that our characters are not the same as before our washing. And since knowledge springs up with illumination, shedding its beams around the mind, the moment we hear, we who were untaught become disciples. Does this, I ask, take place on the advent of this instruction? You cannot tell the time. For instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit. For that faith is the one universal salvation of humanity, and that there is the same equality before the righteous and loving God, and the same fellowship between Him and all, the apostle most clearly showed, speaking to the following effect: Before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed, so that the law became our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith; but after that faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. Do you not hear that we are no longer under that law which was accompanied with fear, but under the Word, the master of free choice?

The Paedagogus, Chapter 6. The Name Children Does Not Imply Instruction in Elementary Principles

Clement’s writings show the role faith plays in advance of baptism “for instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit”. First comes instruction, then faith, then baptism with faith being “the one universal salvation of humanity”. The timing of baptism is then, therefore, after instruction has brought up the fruit of faith in the recipient.

Baptism is also seen to be the joined to salvation, Clement previously stating elsewhere in this chapter “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.” therefore being able to highlight a definitive moment of salvation is problematic, instead we see a process in which faith is key and is “trained by the Holy Spirit”. Clement also writes “Thus believing alone, and regeneration is perfection in life” regeneration being described elsewhere with allusion to 2 Corinthians 5:17 and the language of cleansing seem inevitably a reference to baptism.

The idea that one might be regenerate and yet not believe seems impossible to Clement. Despite this, he goes to great lengths to link children and the life of faith. However, the use of the language concerning children in this context is not at all the normative use of the term…

“He does not then use the appellation of children on account of their very limited amount of understanding from their age, as some have thought. Nor, if He says, Unless you become as these children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of God, are His words to be understood as meaning without learning. We, then, who are infants, no longer roll on the ground, nor creep on the earth like serpents as before, crawling with the whole body about senseless lusts; but, stretching upwards in soul, loosed from the world and our sins, touching the earth on tiptoe so as to appear to be in the world, we pursue holy wisdom, although this seems folly to those whose wits are whetted for wickedness. Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless.”

The Paedagogus, Chapter 5. All Who Walk According to Truth are Children of God

So far from being devoid of learning or understanding the children of God are those who pursue holy wisdom.

Tertullian of Carthage (155 – 240 AD)

For why is it necessary — if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks. For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred — in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom — until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.

On Baptism, Chapter 18

I gave thanks to the Lord; and his absence became a source of consolation to me. In that same interval of a few days we were baptized, and to me the Spirit prescribed that in the water baptism nothing else was to be sought for bodily endurance. After a few days we are taken into the dungeon, and I was very much afraid, because I had never felt such darkness. O terrible day! O the fierce heat of the shock of the soldiery, because of the crowds! I was very unusually distressed by my anxiety for my infant. There were present there Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, and had arranged by means of a gratuity that we might be refreshed by being sent out for a few hours into a pleasanter part of the prison. Then going out of the dungeon, all attended to their own wants. I suckled my child, which was now enfeebled with hunger. In my anxiety for it, I addressed my mother and comforted my brother, and commended to their care my son. I was languishing because I had seen them languishing on my account. Such solicitude I suffered for many days, and I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; and forthwith I grew strong and was relieved from distress and anxiety about my infant; and the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere.

The Passion Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions, Chapter 1

As mentioned in my initial part Tertullian is often seen as damaged goods when considering his schismatic and Montanist ways later in life. Yet at the time of writing “On Baptism” Tertullian was firmly ensconced in the church of the time. Writing during the same period of Irenaeus we see him explicitly espousing a view that challenges what could be inferred from Irenaeus and his writings.

The important thing to note, however, was that Tertullian was talking about it. This thereby affirms that such a practice was taking place, something he recognised but thought was not the better way. This is a church in tension on the matter unlike the ideologically pure camps of the contemporary paedobaptist and credobaptist respectively.

It is also worth asking what the line “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?” mean within the light of Original sin? This seems to imply some form of an age of innocence which may be more compatible with the Eastern Orthodox view of Ancestral Sin. That whilst a child has not sinned themselves, yet still bearing the taint of the fall, they may be considered in a way innocent. This isn’t the only reference to something like this we will see here.

Tertullian, to me, ultimately seems to discourage infant baptism as irresponsible and arguably a gamble for all parties involved but acknowledges that the baptism itself is still effectual. Despite this, it was clear that members of the church were already seeing the topic as contentious. We also see in the passion of Perpetua and Felicitas no reference to the baptism of Perpetua’s child despite that of Perpetua. Whether such an event is assumed to happen at the same time as Perpetua’s or actually didn’t occur is a matter of speculation since we have no reference to it in the text.

I will be honest in saying I am sympathetic to this view I see Tertullian espousing here, even if I think he is too harsh in his judgements.

Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235 AD)

And they shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family. And next they shall baptism the grown men; and last the women.

Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5

This quote here seems to be the most explicit to date that advocates newborn baptism. Hippolytus also raises the view of sponsors we first see mentioned by Tertullian. Hippolytus also opens this document by asserting such traditions have been explicitly handed down by the apostles themselves. As a result, this is probably the most important text, outside of Cyprian’s later writings, we have available regarding the preeminence of the paedobaptist cause.

I recommend reading the entire section because it also gives a detailed explanation of how baptism was carried out. It is significantly more developed than that which we see in the Didache and includes praying over the water followed by a triple immersion (per assent to the individual members of the Trinity). Then they are anointed with oil for the sake of exorcism and thanksgiving. The subject being baptised was also naked. I mention these details because the liturgy seems far removed from most Protestant infant baptisms. Some may assert that nevertheless, we see the baptism of newborns, therefore, the case is made. The issue with this is stated by paedobaptists Hendrick F. Stander and Johannes P. Louw in their book ‘Baptism in the early church’ which I will now quote at length…

“These little ones involved children who could speak for themselves, that is, who could respond to the questions of the bishop at the right moment using the prescribed words. Such children were surely not babies. Those who could not speak for themselves could be very young children who needed assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. Assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. They were not exempted from the teaching and fasting preliminaries etc. The early Christian church never required a particular age for receiving baptism, and children who have accepted the faith and confessed their belief were indeed baptized. The question is not the fact that they were children, but whether this particular group who could not speak for themselves were indeed babies. One should then also assume that they could not partake in the whole ritual of baptism if they were indeed babies. However, one should also remember that the original Greek has not been recovered, except for a few small fragments. This quotation from the Apostolic Tradition is found, in a Latin translation which dates from the fourth century. Some scholars have even suggested that it is not unlikely that this verse was inserted in the Latin translation since incidentally it was also in the fourth century that infant baptism became popular. If one decides to accept the expression ‘little ones’ as indeed referring to babies, then one should not apply this to situations before the fourth century since one must remember that the ancient translators had no objections to inserting and omitting phrases from the text from which they translated. They often adapted texts to suit their present situation. This can be clearly seen when one compares, for example, extant sections of the Greek, Sahidic, Arabic, Ethiopic and Boharic translations of the Apostolic Tradition, (For a comparison of the different readings in these versions of the Apostolic Tradition, see Cuming 1976)

The most important argument, however, for the later addition this sentence is that it does not fit in very well in the periscope. As Aland (1963:43ff.) has pointed out, the sections which precede this baptismal regulation, deal exclusively with adult catechumens: their life is to be examined, their behaviour during their catechumenate is to be tested and they should spend the night which precedes their baptism in the reading of the Scriptures. These are all regulations which suit adult baptismal candidates, and definitely not infants. Aland concludes that it is very risky to base one’s arguments for infant baptism on the statement that ‘little ones too should be baptized’. He maintains that the rising popularity of infant baptism in the fourth century could have motivated a translator to insert a sentence to such an effect. He also refers to the Coptic translation having a statement that three years are required for a person to receive instruction in the Christian faith before baptism was administered.

But let us rather scrutinize the whole passage: Hippolytus tells us that the lives of those who were to be baptized were examined. Thereafter they were daily exorcized. Though exorcism before baptism does not have a New Testament precedent, it is found in almost all the ancient baptismal . Hippolytus is possibly describing a baptismal ceremony which took place during Easter Weekend. Easter is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church and was marked by special ceremonies, including baptism. The preparation for baptism started already on the Thursday when the catechumenates had bathe themselves. On the Friday they fasted. The next day (Saturday) the final exorcism took place. The bishop then made a sign, perhaps the cross, on the forehead, ears and noses of the candidates. In order to prevent subsequent defilement, they spend the rest of the time, till their baptism, in the reading of the Scriptures. The first act at the actual baptismal ceremony was the blessing of the water. If it were at all possible, the baptism had to take place in ‘living’ water (cf. the Didache chapter 2). Note that the baptismal candidates had to take off their clothes before they were baptized. We know from other writings that the taking off of clothes suggested the laying down of their earlier life. The reason for nudity in baptism is probably to fully expose the body, which had been exorcized, to the renewing influence of the water. This perhaps also explains why the women had to loosen their hair: it was merely to ensure that all the hair got wet . In fact, when a person was baptized, a sufficient quantity of water was used to properly wet the person. Sprinkling a few drops or even merely touching the head with moist fingers was I much later development. In fact, one can still find a few of the churches in Europe today practicing infant baptism and having a large enough baptismal font to receive the whole body of the infant. This is still a regular feature of infant baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church.

The anointing with oil before baptism derived from the ancient belief in the curative powers of oil (cf. Is. 5:14; Mk. 6:13). It appears that the bishop, who performed the actual baptism, was standing on the bank of the stream (or the edge of font) while the deacon stood in the water to assist the candidate. From the earliest times the recitation of one or other form of a creed was linked to baptism. This was to the requirement that candidates should confess their faith in Jesus before they could be baptized. A rudimentary form of such a creed at one of the first Christian baptisms can found in some manuscripts (cf. Acts 8:37). In Acts 8:37 Philip baptized the eunuch after the latter had professed his fait as follows: ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ In the course of time more and more elements were added to this primitive form of the creed. However, after the introduction of infant baptism the creed ceased to be part of the baptismal liturgy.

To conclude: Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition is an invaluable source of information concerning the practice of baptism in the first half of the third century. The regular practice was the baptism of adults having confessed their belief, but the text as we have it, also has a statement referring to very young probably also including infants. The Latin text is from the fourth century when infant baptism became a regular practice. If one insists however, that the Latin text does faithfully represent the lost Greek original, then one may say that in the third century the first traces of infant baptism occur, though the document still speaks of a fairly elaborate ceremony in which only adults or older children could participate. If we accept this document as an early reference to infant baptism it is important to notice that the baptism of these infants was not linked to the covenant or the rite of circumcision. It was still an event following upon a verbal confession of faith.”

H F. Stander and J P. Louw, Baptism in the early church p. 77-80

I would not have an issue therefore with Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition here which still seems a far-cry from contemporary paedobaptist beliefs and some attempt is made for the child to make profession and preparation of their own accord.

Origen (184 – 253 AD)

In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous

Homilies on Leviticus 8:3

I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. Of what kinds? Or when did they sin? But since “No one is exempt from stain,” one removes the stain by the mystery of baptism. For this reason infants are baptized. For “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Homily on Luke 14:5

For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit. On account of these stains the body itself is called the body of sin.

Commentary on Romans 5:9

Matthew alone adds the words “to repentance,” teaching that the benefit of baptism is connected with the intention of the baptized person; to him who repents it is salutary, but to him who comes to it without repentance it will turn to greater condemnation.  … Regeneration did not take place with John, but with Jesus through His disciples it does so, and what is called the laver of regeneration takes place with renewal of the Spirit; for the Spirit now comes in addition since it comes from God and is over and above the water and does not come to all after the water.  So far, then, our examination of the statements in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IX, Origen on John, Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book VI: Chapter 17

Origen comes next with a series of statements I have found in his works. The ones I have found all point towards the baptism of infants on the basis of cleansing the “stain” and as a means to achieve salvation, drawing explicitly on John 3:3 in one instance. To my mind this is worth comparing with Tertullian’s statements on the “innocent period of life”. Tertullian didn’t reject the idea of sins (Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?) but still considered a child innocent. Origen talks about sin, however, as a stain which is natural and necessitating forgiveness, presumably from birth. A tension seems to arise then here which seems to have no easy resolution but his statements are explicit regarding the baptism of infants.

When we consider Origen’s words, however, we should pause and consider if this is consistent with what we have been shown according to the Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus of Rome. The baptism of infants doesn’t mean a bifurcated baptism allowing for the option of escaping confession from the recipient. He also links the effectual nature of baptism “to repentance” and the intention of the baptised person, explicitly pointing out that the holy spirit “does not come to all after the water” presumably with repentance being the missing ingredient. Therefore even if we do see infants baptised to do so with repentance only condemns the child rather than saves it.

Finally, we note the claim that infant baptism was a practice of the church passed down from the apostles. We see no more context to this statement other than Origen’s assertion without which one must presumably fall back on the available material of the apostles in order to decide. Whether he means something closer to what Cyprian later wrote about or Hippolytus wrote about is unsure.

Cyprian of Carthage (200 – 258 AD)

As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born…

Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift. Elisha, beseeching God, so laid himself upon the infant son of the widow, who was lying dead, that his head was applied to his head, and his face to his face, and the limbs of Elisha were spread over and joined to each of the limbs of the child, and his feet to his feet. If this thing be considered with respect to the inequality of our birth and our body, an infant could not be made equal with a person grown up and mature, nor could its little limbs fit and be equal to the larger limbs of a man. But in that is expressed the divine and spiritual equality, that all men are like and equal, since they have once been made by God; and our age may have a difference in the increase of our bodies, according to the world, but not according to God; unless that very grace also which is given to the baptized is given either less or more, according to the age of the receivers, whereas the Holy Spirit is not given with measure, but by the love and mercy of the Father alike to all. For God, as He does not accept the person, so does not accept the age; since He shows Himself Father to all with well-weighed equality for the attainment of heavenly grace.

Letters 64:2, 3

For which reason we think that no one is to be hindered from obtaining grace by that law which was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision, but that absolutely every man is to be admitted to the grace of Christ, since Peter also in the Acts of the Apostles speaks, and says, The Lord has said to me that I should call no man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28) But if anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted — and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace— how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins— that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.

Letters 64:5

And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat. We bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.

Letters 64:6

Cyprian is interesting in that he was based in Carthage, like Tertullian, but follows along several generations after his predecessor as we now enter the 3rd century. His statements also show emphatically the advocacy for the baptism of the newborn child in order to purge him of “that old death from his first being born”. The letter in its entirety possesses great care and consideration for children and their innocent nature. He also seems to breeze between the distinction of the repentant ‘mature’ sinner and the innocent child. Despite acknowledging the innocent child’s need for cleansing and the mature sinner’s need for cleansing and repentance.

What goes entirely unspoken is the disposition of the child showing that the act is effectual regardless of the disposition of the child. We know this because Cyprian doesn’t bracket what kind of children are to be baptised only that it should be available to all. Cyprian points out the mature person’s need for repentance and all that entails but also see’s baptism requisite even when repentance isn’t required in the case of the innocent newborn (has not sinned, except … born after the flesh). In this case, baptism is a form of vaccination or insurance that bears merit to Cyprian entirely separate, although also beneficial, to the purposes of repentance and trusting in Christ for those able.

His writing also ticks the boxes of many later Reformed writers in that it draws on circumcision. Cyprian however clearly views baptism as a means to obtain the spiritual circumcision or circumcision of the heart we see in Deuteronomy 30:6. My language was perhaps crude but in my last post, I referred to this as a means of gaming the process by which we become children of the promise that Paul uses to describe Abraham’s descendants. To my mind, this is the clearest argument for paedobaptism we have in the Fathers despite it being an ex opere operato form that many Protestants would baulk at. Cyprian goes further than Origen who at least explicitly attached repentance to baptism. Cyprian disconnects the will entirely from the efficacy of baptism (and regeneration) in favour of a more seemingly mechanical understanding of the act.

On Rebaptism (3rd century)

And thus, as our salvation is founded in the baptism of the Spirit, which for the most part is associated with the baptism of water, if indeed baptism shall be given by us, let it be conferred in its integrity and with solemnity, and with all those means which are written; and let it be administered without any disconnection of anything. Or if, by the necessity of the case, it should be administered by an inferior cleric, let us wait for the result, that it may either be supplied by us, or reserved to be supplied by the Lord. If, however, it should have been administered by strangers, let this matter be amended as it can and as it allows. Because outside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, sound faith moreover cannot exist, not alone among heretics, but even among those who are established in schism. And for that reason, they who repent and are amended by the doctrine of the truth, and by their own faith, which subsequently has been improved by the purification of their heart, ought to be aided only by spiritual baptism, that is, by the imposition of the bishop’s hands, and by the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the perfect seal of faith has been rightly accustomed to be given in this manner and on this principle in the Church. So that the invocation of the name of Jesus, which cannot be done away, may not seem to be held in disesteem by us; which assuredly is not fitting; although such an invocation, if none of those things of which we have spoken should follow it, may fail and be deprived of the effect of salvation. For when the apostle said that there was one baptism, (Ephesians 4:5) it must needs have been by the continued effect of the invocation of the name of Jesus, because, once invoked, it cannot be taken away by any man, even although we might venture, against the decision of the apostles, to repeat it by giving too much, yea, by the desire of superadding baptism. If he who returns to the Church be unwilling again to be baptized, the result will be that we may defraud him of the baptism of the Spirit, whom we think we must not defraud of the baptism of water.

Chapter 10

So that the same Spirit is, moreover, sometimes found to be upon those who are unworthy of Him; not certainly in vain or without reason, but for the sake of some needful operation; as He was upon Saul, upon whom came the Spirit of God, and he prophesied. However, in later days, after the Spirit of the Lord departed from him, and after a malign spirit from the Lord vexed him, because then he had come, after the messengers whom he had previously sent before with care, with intent to kill David; and they therefore fell into the chorus of the prophets, and they prophesied, so that they neither were able nor willing to do what they had been bidden. And we believe that the Spirit which was upon them all effected this with an admirable wisdom, by the will of God. Which Spirit also filled John the Baptist even from his mother’s womb; and it fell upon those who were with Cornelius the centurion before they were baptized with water. Thus, cleaving to the baptism of men, the Holy Spirit either goes before or follows it; or failing the baptism of water, it falls upon those who believe. We are counselled that either we ought duly to maintain the integrity of baptism, or if by chance baptism is given by any one in the name of Jesus Christ, we ought to supplement it, guarding the most holy invocation of the name of Jesus Christ, as we have most abundantly set forth; guarding, moreover, the custom and authority which so much claim our veneration for so long a time and for such great men.

Chapter 14

The anonymous tract “On Rebaptism” emerged from North Africa during the time of debate between the aforementioned Cyprian and Stephen then Bishop of Rome. I quote from “On Rebaptism” because we don’t have much in the way of Stephen’s writings available on the debate. The debate itself, as per the title, was on the topic of Rebaptism. Cyprian had written strongly against the idea that the baptism of heretical groups like the Novations was valid so heretics returning to the church must be rebaptised. Prior baptisms weren’t actually baptisms as heretics were devoid of the holy spirit and thus unable to baptise. Stephen by contrast drew a distinction between baptism by water and baptism by the spirit. Asserting that whilst baptism was the ordinary means of receiving the holy spirit it was not limited by baptism and that the name of Jesus was efficacious to save even if the baptiser, and the recipient were in error.

Cyprian and the Council of Carthage of 256 AD rejected Stephen’s judgement. Their view being held by representatives of the Eastern Church who considered Stephen’s view to potentially excommunicate Cyprian and his followers over this an overreach in authority on a topic he was in error. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia wrote to Cyprian depicting Stephen’s view as “Heretical baptism can produce remission of sins and the second birth, even though they admit themselves that heretics do not have the Holy Spirit” and that by doing so showed preference for “custom which they seem to oppose to the truth”. Firmillian instead believing that the holy spirit, and the name of Jesus/Christ was only effectual in the church, even if the heretics used the same baptismal formulae. Firmillian actually invoking the analogy of a walled garden for the church compared to Stephen’s more ‘open source’ view on the efficacy of baptism.

I mention the above, which is but a cursory introduction, to point out the view of the holy spirit in the roll of baptism and the contention therein. Cyprian and his followers expressly linked baptism to saving faith, that the baptism of water was also the baptism of the spirit. Stephen represented a position that was open to the idea that the baptism of water wasn’t always a baptism of the spirit and that the spirit could operate even in those found in error by virtue of “personal faith and disposition”. Something Cyprian’s camp, via Firmilian’s pen, considered “ridiculous in itself.” Stephen by contrast is recorded in Eusebius’s histories of the church as going as far as refusing communion to churches who allied with Cyprian. Both camps accused the other of ‘rebaptising’ by their own definition.

Eusebius later notes that in subsequent generations this issue hadn’t gone away. Stephen’s successor Sixtus had to deal with a similar situation raised by the Bishop of Alexandria, a man called Dionysius. Dionysius upheld the view of a number of eastern councils that heretics had to be rebaptised, arguing that this wasn’t an innovation, and therefore no second baptism. However he later writes…

For truly, brother, I am in need of counsel, and I ask your judgment concerning a certain matter which has come to me, fearing that I may be in error.

For one of the brethren that assemble, who has long been considered a believer, and who, before my ordination, and I think before the appointment of the blessed Heraclas, was a member of the congregation, was present with those who were recently baptized. And when he heard the questions and answers, he came to me weeping, and bewailing himself; and falling at my feet he acknowledged and protested that the baptism with which he had been baptized among the heretics was not of this character, nor in any respect like this, because it was full of impiety and blasphemy.

And he said that his soul was now pierced with sorrow, and that he had not confidence to lift his eyes to God, because he had set out from those impious words and deeds. And on this account he besought that he might receive this most perfect purification, and reception and grace.

But I did not dare to do this; and said that his long communion was sufficient for this. For I should not dare to renew from the beginning one who had heard the giving of thanks and joined in repeating the Amen; who had stood by the table and had stretched forth his hands to receive the blessed food; and who had received it, and partaken for a long while of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But I exhorted him to be of good courage, and to approach the partaking of the saints with firm faith and good hope.

But he does not cease lamenting, and he shudders to approach the table, and scarcely, though entreated, does he dare to be present at the prayers.

Eusebius, Church History. Chapter 7:9

Despite initially articulating a position in accord with Cyprian Dionysius, when confronted with the pastoral reality of the situation, now adopts a position more in accord with that of Sixtus’s predecessor Stephen. Sixtus himself later responded, based on letters we have available, that a baptism in the name of the trinity was valid, only needing reconciliation under reception into the church but baptism by any other name was to be replaced with a baptism of the trinity. Dionysius agreed with this view citing the great commission. This seems indicative that whilst Cyprian’s view was initially perhaps more popular Stephen was to be validated by their successors.

Cyril of Jerusalem (319 – 386 AD)

Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver : he was baptized, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him. Now I mention the statements of (men’s) falls, that you may not fall: for these things happened to them by way of example, and they are written for the admonition of those who to this day draw near. Let none of you be found tempting His grace, lest any root of bitterness spring up and trouble you. Let none of you enter saying, Let us see what the faithful are doing: let me go in and see, that I may learn what is being done. Do you expect to see, and not expect to be seen? And do you think that while you are searching out what is going on, God is not searching your heart?

Procatechesis 2

Take heed lest without reason you mistrust the power of repentance. Would you know what power repentance has? Would you know the strong weapon of salvation, and learn what the force of confession is? Hezekiah by means of confession routed a hundred and fourscore and five thousand of his enemies. A great thing verily was this, but still small in comparison with what remains to be told: the same king by repentance obtained the recall of a divine sentence which had already gone forth. For when he had fallen sick, Esaias said to him, Set your house in order; for you shall die, and not live. (2 Kings 20:1) What expectation remained, what hope of recovery, when the Prophet said, for you shall die? Yet Hezekiah did not desist from repentance; but remembering what is written, When you shall turn and lament, then shall you be saved (Isaiah 30:15), he turned to the wall, and from his bed lifting his mind to heaven (for thickness of walls is no hindrance to prayers sent up with devotion), he said, Remember me, O Lord, for it is sufficient for my healing that You remember me. You are not subject to times, but art Yourself the giver of the law of life. For our life depends not on a nativity, nor on a conjunction of stars, as some idly talk; but both of life and its duration. Then art Yourself the Lawgiver according to Your Will. And he, who could not hope to live because of the prophetic sentence, had fifteen years added to his life, and for the sign the sun ran backward in his course. Well then, for Ezekias’ sake the sun turned back but for Christ the sun was eclipsed, not retracing his steps, but suffering eclipse (Isaiah 38:8), and therefore showing the difference between them, I mean between Ezekias and Jesus. The former prevailed to the cancelling of God’s decree, and cannot Jesus grant remission of sins? Turn and bewail yourself, shut your door, and pray to be forgiven, pray that He may remove from you the burning flames. For confession has power to quench even fire, power to tame even lions.

Catechetical Lecture 2:15

Guard yourself then, O man; you have the signs of Antichrist; and remember them not only yourself, but impart them also freely to all. If you have a child according to the flesh, admonish him of this now; if you have begotten one through catechizing , put him also on his guard, lest he receive the false one as the True. For the mystery of iniquity does already work. (2 Thessalonians 2:7) I fear these wars of the nations ; I fear the schisms of the Churches; I fear the mutual hatred of the brethren. But enough on this subject; only God forbid that it should be fulfilled in our days; nevertheless, let us be on our guard. And thus much concerning Antichrist.

Catechetical Lecture 15:18

After this you say, and all your service.  Now the service of the devil is prayer in idol temples; things done in honour of lifeless idols; the lighting of lamps, or burning of incense by fountains or rivers, as some persons cheated by dreams or by evil spirits do [resort to this ], thinking to find a cure even for their bodily ailments. Go not after such things. The watching of birds, divination, omens, or amulets, or charms written on leaves, sorceries, or other evil arts , and all such things, are services of the devil; therefore shun them. For if after renouncing Satan and associating yourself with Christ , thou fall under their influence, you shall find the tyrant more bitter; perchance, because he treated you of old as his own, and relieved you from his hard bondage, but has now been greatly exasperated by you; so you will be bereaved of Christ, and have experience of the other. Have you not heard the old history which tells us of Lot and his daughters? Was not he himself saved with his daughters, when he had gained the mountain, while his wife became a pillar of salt, set up as a monument for ever, in remembrance of her depraved will and her turning back. Take heed therefore to yourself, and turn not again to what is behind, having put your hand to the plough, and then turning back to the salt savour of this life’s doings; but escape to the mountain, to Jesus Christ, that stone hewn without hands Daniel 2:35, 45, which has filled the world.

Catechetical Lecture 19:8

Let no one then suppose that Baptism is merely the grace of remission of sins, or further, that of adoption; as John’s was a baptism conferring only remission of sins: whereas we know full well, that as it purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ. For this cause Paul just now cried aloud and said, Or are you ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus, were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into His death. These words he spoke to some who were disposed to think that Baptism ministers to us the remission of sins, and adoption, but has not further the fellowship also, by representation, of Christ’s true sufferings.

Catechetical Lecture 20:9

We are lucky to have an extensive series of Catechetical lectures available to us by Cyril of Jerusalem. These detail at length the process by which those who have come to faith (illuminated) but not yet baptised (Christian) make the transition from the former to the latter. The subject of repentance is a recurring theme throughout the piece as is the emphasis on a strong confession that moves not just the lips but compelled the heart to enjoin it. We also see these themes echoed, in a less systematic way, in the writings of John Chrysostom of Antioch and later Constantinople. The idea of a baptism present without suitable confession and repentance is only ever raised as a source of condemnation for the individual concerned.

In addition to repentance and confession, there is an extensive emphasis on exorcism and purification. The former being part of the latter which was requisite to prepare oneself for baptism. I will keep it short but participants were instructed to face West and rebuke the devil, and all his deeds and associations (a list mirroring in many ways that given by Tertullian and the Apostolic Tradition) before turning East to accept Christ. When they turned East the state “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance.”

Subjects were then brought into the main body of the church, for previously they had been on the outer chambers. This was representative of Hebrew priests entering the holiest of holies in the Temple. Catechumens were subsequently anointed with oil as a sealing before proceeding to be baptised in a pool without clothing. They were subsequently immersed three times after confessing to believe in each member of the Trinity. After their immersion, they were clothed in white and given communion. This would end a 40 day preparatory fast undertaken by the catechumens. In all of this, there is nothing stopping anyone of any age participating but no exception or contingency for those who might be considered newborn being able to participate via the benefit of a sponsor.

Egeria, a pilgrim who’s journal survives to this day recalls that many of the baptisms undertaken today were done in the same places in which John the Baptist conducted his baptisms. Cyril himself would have likely conducted his baptisms in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself lending the teaching of being baptised into Christ a very visceral component. She noted that the newly baptised were referred to as children, but that this had no reference to their actual age but rather status as new Christians.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – 390 AD)

Are you young? Stand against your passions; be numbered with the alliance in the army of God: do valiantly against Goliath. (1 Samuel 17:32) Take your thousands or your myriads; thus enjoy your manhood; but do not allow your youth to be withered, being killed by the imperfection of your faith. Are you old and near the predestined necessity? Aid your few remaining days. Entrust the purification to your old age. Why do you fear youthful passion in deep old age and at your last breath? Or will you wait to be washed till you are dead, and not so much the object of pity as of dislike? Are you regretting the dregs of pleasure, being yourself in the dregs of life? It is a shameful thing to be past indeed the flower of your age, but not past your wickedness; but either to be involved in it still, or at least to seem so by delaying your purification. 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. Fearest thou the Seal on account of the weakness of nature? O what a small-souled mother, and of how little faith! Why, Anna even before Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:10) promised him to God, and after his birth consecrated him at once, and brought him up in the priestly habit, not fearing anything in human nature, but trusting in God. You have no need of amulets or incantations, with which the Devil also comes in, stealing worship from God for himself in the minds of vainer men. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Guard.

On Baptism, Oration 40:7

Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.

A proof of this is found in the Circumcision on the eighth day, which was a sort of typical seal, and was conferred on children before they had the use of reason. And so is the anointing of the doorposts, (Exodus 12:22) which preserved the firstborn, though applied to things which had no consciousness. But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. For this is how the matter stands; at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.

On Baptism, Oration 40:28

A century later we see Gregory of Nazianzus encouraging this audience to come forward for baptism. Reading it, to me, I imagine something akin to an altar call by the way he speaks. It also strikes me that, going by the way he frames his preaching that his audience likely has a decent number of people who aren’t baptised in the congregation.

A high proportion of unbaptised individuals isn’t surprising in an increasingly Christian society when we consider the fact that Gregory himself wasn’t baptised in his 30s despite his father being a bishop and was instead consciously dedicated by his mother as a newborn. It was also put by some biographers that his baptism only took place when confronted with the risk of death after surviving a shipwreck. This was initially a surprise to me but it turns out that a decent number of notable fathers. (My favourite example being Ambrose of Milan) weren’t baptised till later in life, even if they subsequently went on to advocate for the baptism of those significantly younger than they were when they experienced it. The reasoning for such a practice, to me, seems linked to an idea relating to “the weighty import of baptism” in the words of Tertullian and perhaps a “fear (of) its reception more than its delay”. That sin after baptism was hard to receive forgiveness for since one could not be baptised again. This arguably explains why many during this period, the most famous arguably being Constantine the Great, was baptised upon late in life or upon their death-bed despite claiming to profess Christ many years previously. As mentioned we perhaps see evidence for the thinking that leads to this view in the writings of Clement.

Regarding the above Orations, it is notable that despite Gregory’s admonition to come forward for baptism as soon as possible yet we also see a caveat. The baptism of newborns is to be proceeded in the event of the likelihood of death considering it “better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated” which subtly acknowledges the fact that a baptism of the unconsciously aware is not normative but an intervention of sorts. Gregory then continues saying “in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament”. He subsequently gives a response which engages with the criticisms of paedobaptists who say it is impossible to rightly discern the ‘right time’ for baptism amongst those coming of age..

“…at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.”

Which seems to say that baptism is useful even if not comprehensively understood, only that it be understood in some measure. This seems to speak comprehensively to the criticism of Reformed Paedobaptist scholars like Herman Bavinck who wrote…

“Those who want absolute certainty [concerning election and faith] can never dispense any sacrament”

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4:526

Despite Gregory’s encouragement to allow some period to pass such that “they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament”. Again what we see here in Gregory’s writing, and his own life, upsets the clean lines of paedobaptist and credobaptist doctrines even in the 4th century. We also see permission for the baptism of newborns framed as a pastoral measure which echoes the conditions which lead to Gregory’s own baptism. A realisation of the reality regarding the unexpected and sudden nature of death anticipated many seeking baptism ahead of time in order to secure their loved ones should the worst happen.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD)

But the sacrament of baptism is undoubtedly the sacrament of regeneration: Wherefore, as the man who has never lived cannot die, and he who has never died cannot rise again, so he who has never been born cannot be born again. From which the conclusion arises, that no one who has not been born could possibly have been born again in his father. Born again, however, a man must be, after he has been born; because, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ Even an infant, therefore, must be imbued with the sacrament of regeneration, lest without it his would be an unhappy exit out of this life; and this baptism is not administered except for the remission of sins. And so much does Christ show us in this very passage; for when asked, How could such things be? He reminded His questioner of what Moses did when he lifted up the serpent. Inasmuch, then, as infants are by the sacrament of baptism conformed to the death of Christ, it must be admitted that they are also freed from the serpent’s poisonous bite, unless we willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith. This bite, however, they did not receive in their own actual life, but in him on whom the wound was primarily inflicted.

On Forgiveness of Sin, and Baptism, 43:27

Augustine during his life had written several times with reference to the baptism of infants but I think this passage is one of the best examples of his views. He also, elsewhere, explicitly affirms the writings of Cyprian a century beforehand on this topic concerning the timing of baptism as ideally instantaneous.

Augustine in this excerpt articulates a view of baptism bestowing regeneration and yet that it is possible to subsequently fall into Satan’s clutches if we “willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith.” Here baptism is seen explicitly as an ex opere operato treatment for the remission of sins, which include that of Adam which we all suffer from (“this baptism is not administered except for the remission of sins”). This is original sin and baptism here is presented as a vaccination against it. An analogy I’ve heard advocates adopt today on the topic, that and the idea of insurance. Baptism in this light is an act itself that is effectual regardless of the disposition of the individual but that is presumably rendered subsequently ineffectual should the person concerned “willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith” or in the words of Clement failing to keep our baptism “holy and undefiled”. So our will isn’t involved in salvation but it is involved in our damnation, which is possible even if baptised.

Having said all the above, it does seem possible to reconcile Augustine’s statements on the topic to that of Tertullian by means of using Gregory of Nazianzus as a bridge. Doing so rests on “lest without it his would be an unhappy exit out of this life” which we might pair with Gregory’s…

Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.

On Baptism, Oration 40:28

So the danger of death is seen as the instigating event by which baptism be administered amongst those not conscious, as a form of insurance or vaccination. We may join with Cyprian’s belief that “the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” and finally Tertullian’s “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay” highlighting that should a child live through the danger presented a greater pressure is present upon them not to mar the baptism they received earlier in life. Particularly if we consider Origen’s words on receiving baptism “without repentance it will turn to greater condemnation”.

So does one uphold the baptism administered shortly after birth by ongoing repentance later in life? Commentators preceding Augustine (and Cyprian) seem to indicate that the order is confused here but are silent on practices that don’t uphold the ideal they outline. Other commentators, like Cyprian and Augustine, seem more pliable on the timing of baptism but hold a view that introduces what I have previously called a bifurcated vision of the act. This means that one way someone is baptised is when they trust, repent, fast, confess and be baptised. Another way is that the act itself is operative without confessing faith, or by some mode of sponsorship. Baptism of newborns, which seems to get more developed as the centuries role on, seems independently effectual regardless of the child. For anyone else it is only effectual when sustained by trust in, obedience to and love of God. Therefore, for anyone baptised as newborns, at some indeterminable point, must inevitably make the transition to trust in, obey and love God when able. The question I guess is, how many go on to do that?

Side note

In reading around on this more generally I have seen no shortage of articles online stressing the urgency of baptism, particularly by Roman Catholics. I read these articles only to find in the comments parents who still mourn the death of their child who died before the priest could arrive and deliver baptism. If we echo the desire of Cyprian for all to have access to God’s grace it escapes me how God could condemn innocents, taken without warning, and deprived of baptism because of the slow action of priests or parents. On the other hand I think of my lapsed or apostate Roman Catholic colleagues and can’t help but wonder, writing this, might it have been better for them to die after baptism such that they wouldn’t go on to forsake it using the reasoning of their former tradition. It also seems to be only different to Jewish circumcision to a superficial degree with regard to salvation, one that was apparently rebuked by John the Baptist for being devoid of repentance despite their seeming piety.

I also think there is a temptation here to paint those who come to different views on the matter as somehow not desiring for all to have access to God’s grace, especially little children. That is emphatically not the case in my experience. Yet it seems a perennial temptation for those of one position to utilise this claim against those who believe differently to themselves.

Additional considerations

Emergency baptism

Everett Ferguson in his work “Baptism in the Early Church” goes to some length to show the material impact of baptismal practices concerning children who unfortunately died before their time. He does this by providing translations of inscriptions found on funerary monuments within the catacombs of the early church. This provides a powerful and touching insight into the beliefs of early Christians on the topic of baptism. I will now post a number with brief commentary under each.

3rd century

Pastor, Titiana, Marciana, and Chreste made this for Marcianus, a well-deserving son in Christ the Lord. He lived twelve years, two months, and . . . days. He received grace on September 20 when the consuls were Marinianus and Paternus the second time. He gave up (his soul) on September 21. May you live among the saints in eternity.

Marcianus was twelve when he died his epithet denoting that he received his baptism on the day before his death. It is also indicative that his family, whilst believing, had not undertaken to have him baptised as a newborn. A pattern we see repeated with other children.

Sweet Tyche lived one year, ten months, fifteen days. Received (grace) on the eighth day before the Kalends. . . . Gave up (her soul) on the same day. Irene, who lived with her parents eleven months and six days, received (grace) on April 7 and gave up (her soul) on April 13.

Tyche and Irene were both infants when they died, but in both instances we see a baptism (I assume) just before their death. In the case of Tyche on the same day. Whilst this is the closest we have to contemporary paedobaptism the pattern we see emerging is baptism in proximity to death amongst infants, not birth.

Sacred to the divine dead. Florentius made this monument for his well-deserving son Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months, and five days. Since he was dearly loved by his grandmother, and she saw that he was going to die, she asked from the church that he might depart from the world a believer.

Appronianus, it is detailed, was baptised at the request of his grandmother and by permission of his father by the church. This is interesting in that the baptism seems to come not by the insistence of the church but of a relative. This points to conduct distinctly different from contemporary paedobaptist traditions.

4th century

Her parents set this up for Julia Florentina, their dearest and most innocent infant who was made a believer. She was born a pagan on the day before the nones of March before dawn when Zoilus was a censor of the province. She lived eighteen months and twenty-two days and was made a believer in the eighth hour of the night, almost drawing her last breath. She survived four more hours so that she entered again on the customary things [eucharist placed in her mouth?]. She died at Hybla in the first hour of the day on September 25. . . .

Julia is interesting in that it is mentioned she was born a pagan. Presumably her family in the proceeding eighteen months had then become Christians. If this followed the paedobaptist readings of household conversions Julia would have been baptised sometime before the night of her death.

It is also worth noting the language of being “made a believer” pointing both to the role of baptism in such a process. The other thing to note was that with the time she had left she was subsequently granted communion denoting no separation of the two sacraments. Something uncommon in contemporary paedobaptist traditions.

Postumius Eutenion, a believer, who obtained holy grace the day before his birthday at a very late hour and died. He lived six years and was buried on the eleventh of July on the day of Jupiter on which he was born. His soul is with the saints in peace. Felicissimus, Eutheria, and Gesta his grandmother, for their worthy son Postumius.

(Rome)

Postumius is another example of a child who was baptised in proximity not to birth but to his death. He was also born to a Christian family but despite this lived the majority of his life unbaptised until the reality of his death drew near.

In the consulship of Ursus and Polemius the girl named Felite, more or less thirty years old, obtained (grace) on March 26 and died in peace after April 29 on the day of Mercury at the ninth hour.

(Rome)

Felite wasn’t a child when she died, she was 30, and received baptism a month before her death. The proximity to death is what makes her case consistent with the aforementioned children. She might have been a convert, she might have been born into the church but a baptism so late in life and so close to death points to the significance of the act of baptism to the early church in relation to the recipients place in the afterlife.

Here is laid Fortunia, who lived more or less four years. The parents set this up for their dearest daughter. She obtained (grace) on July 27 . . . and died on July 25 [sic — the workman perhaps exchanged the dates]. Gratian for the second time and Probus were the consuls.

(Capua)

Fortunia was a child, like those listed, born to Christian parents but baptised, instead of at birth, in proximity to her death. It is worth noting that all of these children would have likely participated in the same liturgy undertaken by adults during the baptism itself.

For the well-deserving Antonia Cyriaceti, who lived nineteen years, two months, twenty-six days. Received (the grace) of God and died a virgin on the fourth day. Julius Benedictus her father set this up for his sweet and incomparable daughter. November 20.

(Rome)

Antonia died at the age of nineteen and was baptised, having not been baptised previously, despite having a apparently believing father several days before her death. John Chrysostom was baptised at a similar age (18) did so upon entering the service of the church. Antonia however follows the apparent pattern of putting off baptism until death drew near.

For Flavia, dearest infant, who with sound mind obtained the grace of the glorious font on Easter day and survived after holy baptism five months. She lived three years, ten months, seven days. The parents, Flavian and Archelaius, for their pious daughter. Burial on the eighteenth of August.

(Salona)

Flavia, despite being only 3, is described as having been baptised ‘with sound mind’ suggesting she was participative and compos mentis during her reception of it. This means she likely participated in the baptismal liturgy like an adult. Described as pious she sounds like someone who matched the description of a worthy recipient of baptism regardless of her age.

A three-year-old girl is the subject of an epitaph from Macedonia. The parents’ grief is comforted through Christ, who gave her from an eternal spring the life of heavenly beings. The spring is the fount of baptism that brings salvation. Another inscription, possibly third century, is less explicit about the baptismal status of the child: Here lies an infant bereft of an ordinary life, the father’s pleasantness and the mother’s comeliness, their firstborn, two years old, an object of God’s care, pleasant child of sunshine. Grieving, you gave birth to the sweet and gentle. Child of God.

I find the descriptions of the children interesting much is made of their innocence, the second memorial doesn’t actually reference that baptism of the child forcing us to speculate whether or not this child actually received it or not. If not would the language had been different?

Flavius Aurelius, son of Leo, marvellously endowed with the innocence of generous goodness and industry, who lived six years, eight months, eleven days. A neophyte, he rested (in peace) on July 2 in the consulship of Julius Philip and Sallias

(Rome)

Flavius despite being six years old doesn’t have his baptism stated. Instead, he is called a neophyte suggesting his conversion, and presumed baptism again came in close proximity to his death.

For the well-deserving Perpetuus in peace, who lived more or less thirty years. . . . Buried April 13, died a neophyte. . .

(Rome)

Neophytes could be older or younger, the title could have been analogous to that of describing a newly baptised catechumen.

For Proiectus, an infant neophyte, who lived two years, seven months.

(Ravenna)

Proiectus was one of the younger neophytes. It is telling that the age is not the consistent factor in these descriptions, rather their status as a new convert. Proiectus was unlikely to be a convert at this age and so again the proximity to death was likely a contributing factor in the baptism since it wasn’t given in immediate proximity to birth.

For the well-deserving Eugenia of happy memory who lived not nineteen years, a neophyte.

(Naples)

Eugenia was another recent convert. The pattern here all denoting the significance of conversion (and baptism) in regard to death.

Achillia, a neophyte, fell asleep in her first year, fifth month, on February 24.

Neophyte we see here is being used in a way synonymous with the ‘obtaining grace’ of prior centuries.

Here lies Macaria, daughter of John of the village Nikeratos. She lived three years, three months, sixteen days. She died a believer on the twenty-fourth of the month Sandikou in the eleventh consulship of Honorius Augustus and the second of Constantius.

Macaria could have been baptised at birth, no details are given, yet with all of these, we establish there is no routine for the time of baptism. Rather that baptism, if detailed, came in proximity to death.

Here lies the body of a boy to be named. O blessed boy, the earth held you for a few days, An infant, and sent you back to the heavenly kingdom. You were born only so that you might attain to rebirth.

(Hippo)

This boy died at a time, and in the city, from which Augustine hailed. Ferguson notes no reference to original sin but that there is a considerable weight attached to ‘rebirth’ or baptism. This was a baptism of a newborn, but it was also an emergency baptism. What brought it on? Judging by precedent the little boy was not expected to live long.

Catechism

I shall turn to that highest authority of our seal itself. When entering the water, we make profession of the Christian faith in the words of its rule; we bear public testimony that we have renounced the devil, his pomp, and his angels. Well, is it not in connection with idolatry, above all, that you have the devil with his pomp and his angels? From which, to speak briefly — for I do not wish to dilate — you have every unclean and wicked spirit. If, therefore, it shall be made plain that the entire apparatus of the shows is based upon idolatry, beyond all doubt that will carry with it the conclusion that our renunciatory testimony in the laver of baptism has reference to the shows, which, through their idolatry, have been given over to the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. We shall set forth, then, their several origins, in what nursing-places they have grown to manhood; next the titles of some of them, by what names they are called; then their apparatus, with what superstitions they are observed; (then their places, to what patrons they are dedicated;) then the arts which minister to them, to what authors they are traced. If any of these shall be found to have had no connection with an idol-god, it will be held as free at once from the taint of idolatry, and as not coming within the range of our baptismal abjuration.

Tertullian, The Shows. Chapter 4

So, too, the interdiction of murder shows me that a trainer of gladiators also is excluded from the Church; nor will any one fail to be the means of doing what he subministers to another to do. Behold, here is a more kindred fore-judgment: if a purveyor of the public victims come over to the faith, will you permit him to remain permanently in that trade? Or if one who is already a believer shall have undertaken that business, will you think that he is to be retained in the Church? No, I take it

Tertullian, On Idolatry. Chapter 11. Connection Between Covetousness and Idolatry. Certain Trades, However Gainful, to Be Avoided

They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are brought forward for instruction. If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected…

Catechumens will hear the word for three years. Yet if someone is earnest and perseveres well in the matter, it is not the time that is judged, but the conduct.

Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition. Chapter 16-17

The Christians, however, having previously, so far as possible, tested the souls of those who wish to become their hearers, and having previously instructed them in private, when they appear (before entering the community) to have sufficiently evinced their desire towards a virtuous life, introduce them then, and not before, privately forming one class of those who are beginners, and are receiving admission, but who have not yet obtained the mark of complete purification; and another of those who have manifested to the best of their ability their intention to desire no other things than are approved by Christians; and among these there are certain persons appointed to make inquiries regarding the lives and behaviour of those who join them, in order that they may prevent those who commit acts of infamy from coming into their public assembly, while those of a different character they receive with their whole heart, in order that they may daily make them better.

Origen, Against Celsus. Book 3:51

The witness of the early church is that before baptism it was normative for someone to be considered a catechumen for a period, the Apostolic Tradition states, of normally three years. This was a time for someone to learn about the faith, purify themselves and set aside anything considered objectionable by the Christian community they were about to enter. Lists of forbidden professions and practices denote the emphasis on adults. Some, reading the above, might be tempted to say such a process was not required for children in advance of baptism if their parents were believers. We have no advocate of the period however that states this and as a claim, it is, therefore, open to the accusation of being anachronistic. When Gregory of Nazianzus offers a period of three years, a little more or less, it is likely he offers this with reference to the Apostolic Traditions commendation for believers to be catechised for three years. This is the clearest explanation for this choice of words there. With the exception being a risk of imminent death we see no easy way to join the catechumenate to commonly accepted notions of infant baptism.

The catechism was introduced to ensure that those joining the church were sincere, I have heard objections from those who point to the Ethiopian eunuch, and others, as a justification for the optionality of catechism but we already see its advocates anticipating such comments by framing their conversions as the result of God’s providence in the bringing to faith of such people. In the case of the Eunuch and Cornelius, Tertullian explains, God had acted both by transporting Phillip, speaking to him, and giving Peter visions and the bestowing the Holy Spirit in advance of baptism on Cornelius’s believing household. The latter an argument advanced by Cyprian’s opponents, represented in my writings by Stephen of Rome and the Anonymous Tractarian, on the rebaptism debate of the third century. Catechism was, therefore, a normative prelude to baptism which was understood as the ordinary means of receiving grace and the holy spirit.

It seems inevitable that as infant baptism became normative, and boundaries between Church and broader Roman society became increasingly ephemeral, that the role of catechism began to decline. This lead to an inevitable shift in the predominant way in which baptism is understood, that being almost exclusively through the lens of infant baptism. It may be facetious to consider this understanding of baptism as a passport, or vaccination, enabling access to heaven but it was certainly access to the Christian society that was to exist for the subsequent millennia and a half. Albeit it was an access couched in terms increasingly different from the “choice and knowledge” Justin Martyr referred to, so many years ago, in his apologia to the pagans.

Conclusion

Ecclesial historian David F Wright, when reflecting on the patristic period, wrote “there is precious little evidence in patristic sources of services of baptism being tailored to suit the capacity of infant recipients” (What has Infant Baptism done to Baptism? p8) and “we cannot give the name of anyone before the fourth century, not in an emergency situation who was baptized as an infant.” (At What Age Were People Baptised in the Early Centuries? p389) I find, in my review of the above sources, we see this upheld. We also see liturgy that, to quote Peter Leithart “were constructed on something like Baptist assumptions, even when children were included” (The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism p258). We see baptism happening at a range of ages but predicated on active confessionalism on the part of the recipient. The exception, as we see in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus is “if any danger presses” and the proximity of baptism to the date of death given for many children and youth based on funerary monuments attests to this. On the idea of infant baptism as a normative procedure in the first centuries of the church historian Andrew McGowan writes…

The baptism of infants remains an uncertainty for the first and much of the second century; there is simply no evidence on which to base a definitive judgement. Adults were for many years to remain the normal, if not essentially sole recipients of baptism.

Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship. Initiation: Baptism, Anointing and Foot Washing

Baptism for the early church was the ordained, although not technically exclusive, means by which individuals receive the holy spirit and become partakers of Christ. The extent to which this dispensation was rooted in the orthodoxy of the church or granted to those baptised outside of it who had the appropriate personal faith and disposition was a matter of fierce debate. This was precisely because salvation was considered impossible without the cleansing of an individual from the impact of the fall and their subsequent sins by baptism into Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The pressing question was, therefore, where did the agency of the holy spirit reside? Regardless of the answer, it meant that baptism, therefore, was not withheld from any member of the church community in the event of impending mortality. Despite this, there was notable anxiety regarding the impact of post-baptismal sin which provided a pushback to the pull of an early baptism without due preparation. As a result, we see the emergence of at least two forms of baptism, with multiple modes therein, existing side by side in one communion whilst maintaining theology commending a formal confessionalism and catechetical emphasis reflected in liturgies available to us. Catechism being the normative prelude to baptism.

It is also important to note the different types of evidence presented to us. We have writings taking the form of sermons and letters but we also have biography and archaeology. From what we see in the sermons and letters available we see encouragement to either baptise babies or not to, we also have statements that can be subsequently interpreted either for or against the said positions. Yet the biography and archaeology on hand paint a picture presenting baptism either as an emergency measure or subject to confession. These, although not representative, give us a better idea of the reality many lived with. The fact that many leading Christians of the 4th century were raised in Christian homes yet not baptised till later in life raises questions over the apostolicity of the baptism of babies as is currently understood. That is that if such a practice is to be understood as apostolic, so is the postponement of baptism until an age wherein they might participate of their own volition. If the early church did believe baby baptism was mandated, it would follow that more notable Christians would have been baptised themselves as infants. As it is I have no recourse to any notable Christian during the period covered that was baptised in a fashion and timing palatable to contemporary paedobaptist tradition sensibilities. By contrast every Father, I am aware of, whom we have an account of their baptism had it done at an age in which they participated of their own volition.

Taking all the above into account whilst we cannot prove that anything recognisable as contemporary paedobaptism did not exist in the ancient church, for it is near impossible to prove a negative. However, we can equivocally state that it was not at this time a matter of dogma and not a universal practice but one that later became so.

What we have not covered is the impact of the prior faiths of converts and their surrounding cultures and it is likely that these informed baptismal practices as not necessarily an imitation but a response to pagan, Jewish and other Christian ideas around them. I say this given the variance in baptismal liturgy and practice visible across geography, culture and the process of time. A brief example of this is found in the life of Severus of Antioch, son of the Metropolitan of Sozopolis, who grew up in a community that did not baptise men until they could grow a beard even up until the late 5th and early 6th century yet suffered no sanction by other Christian communities.

Unity in diversity regarding theology is also visible in other areas. In particular, the controversies regarding the dating of Easter which despite differences did not contribute to the ceasing of communion between respective parties early on, a point raised by clergyman and church historian Socrates of Constantinople in the 5th century. That the dating of Easter subsequently went on to be one of the contributing factors between the discord even now persists between East and West seems indicative of the tendency within the church to centralise and dogmatise over time on issues that earlier Christians evidently found ways to work around.

To, therefore, point out, as some do, that a practice is apostolic, in this case, newborn baptism, if it is true is only a selective telling of the matter. Paedobaptism might have been recognisable to the apostles but we know of no time when it was the exclusive mode of baptism mandated before the 6th century by the universal church. The decision by parents to not baptise their child, but to raise them as such that they would later desire baptism for themselves has equal grounds for apostolicity and was arguably normative before the mid 5th century.

As Christianity continued to grow and consolidate the baptism of newborns became normative and universalised in the 5th and 6th century. It is my understanding that the baptism of newborns, historic albeit undogmatically exercised, subsequently became central to combating the view that man could contribute to his own salvation. This was because an infant could not be an active participant in their own baptism, yet it was historically practised by the church and seen as effectual. This justification for the baptism of newborns, whilst existing explicitly at a regional level since at least the 3rd century, was only progressively universalised in the 5th and 6th centuries and subsequently enforced. This lead to the universalising of newborn baptism, the erasure of notable distinctions between the church and broader society, and the subsequent decline of the catechumenate. The mandated baptism of newborns, now universalised, arguably became part of the foundation, and engine, for what is now colloquially known as Christendom.

The history of this period and baptism’s place in it is something I will explore in my next and penultimate section. It is my view, however, that the later dominance of infant baptism colours our reading of the earlier centuries leaving us unable to imagine a time, and a reason, for baptism being any different from commonly accepted understandings today. I hope what I have therefore presented of the early centuries goes some way in challenging, in an irenic way, these notions for those interested.

There is much more that could be said but I feel saying such will not add substantially to the core proposition outlined in this piece and in the interests of some semblance of brevity will draw a line under this entry here.

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On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

With the birth of my son, I have been thinking a lot about baptism. This has been intensified by a period of discerning whether or not I could, should, or would begin the process of discerning ordination in the Church of England. What follows is my attempt to come to terms with the beliefs of those around me and my own understanding of the subject during this period. It is in no way academic or comprehensive but serves as a way for me to somehow work through my thoughts on the matter.

I am a layman and haven’t studied this formally so please forgive any glaring errors or omissions, they are not intentional. I am painfully aware that the more one says the more one is likely to say something stupid, and I am saying a lot here on a subject that is not my expertise. So please forgive any stupidity you find.

My own experience

I was baptised at 16 into the Church of England into which I had been born. My parents came from different backgrounds but believed that I and my brother should be the ones, not them, to commit our lives to Christ when we were convicted of the Gospel and our lives as members of the Church. Growing up I was conscious of going forward for communion with my parents at a young age, to receive a blessing from our minister. I always remember feeling like it was deeply important, despite the informal setting, and the words the minister spoke I remember even now. Yet I was conscious that I wasn’t participating in communion and came to a place where I wanted to commit myself and follow Christ who commanded us to share in his body and blood.

My minister upon hearing my desire began a process of what I now understand to be the catechism. I would go to his house and have a series of long conversations and where we walked through questions regarding the faith and pray about this upcoming event. It wasn’t formal, my minister had known me for the better part of my life and was like family. Despite this, he wanted to make sure I actually knew what I was doing and if I fell short in knowledge could be corrected. We continued and at the next easter, I was baptised.

The baptism itself was at the main church in our parish, the bishop came down and I was baptised at the same time as other, younger, children were being confirmed. I was asked to give an account of my faith before the congregation and when it came to me the bishop and my minister stood me in a pool and by the name of the Trinity, and a profession of faith baptised me by immersion. Subsequently, those from my local church and those I knew in the parish were then asked to stand for me whilst I was subsequently prayed for. I still think about that day frequently and I consider it the moment I was, to use an evangelical phrase ‘born again’. My minister still keeps an interest in my faith even now.

My brother to this day, however, is not baptised and I realise, by the views of most Anglican clergy I’ve talked to, that they would ideally have seen both of us baptised at a much earlier age. I can’t deny this has raised questions over whether or not my baptism, and others like it, was viewed by those clergies aware of it as somehow second class, or that my parent’s decision was errant. Particular because I find this reasoning mirrored in the views I’ve heard expressed when talking about the idea of my son’s baptism and my voicing the view that I would hesitate to baptise a newborn should I have been ordained myself.

My own views have largely been that I am supportive of the parents to decide whatever they wish for their children but that my preference has always been for the child, or whomever, themselves to request and pursue baptism, whatever age they find themselves. I also wish that Churches would only baptise those who were actually regular and committed members of the local congregation. Something which isn’t really the case in many Church of England churches who will baptise seemingly indiscriminately. My own stumbling block was the idea of baptising newborns myself, I recognise such an act as valid but have personally seen little positive fruit come from such an act at an age where the person in question cannot recall or place themselves in the act. I think such a thing would bring judgement on myself before God if I was to theoretically baptise someone and then step away from any involvement in their life. Liturgy is meant to be embodied, it is to be experienced and isn’t an abstraction, but to a newborn isn’t it precisely that? Worse does it lend artificial security and a licence to antinomianism if conducted without suitable confession and repentance?

Through this process, my views have developed somewhat but I will save that for the end of this series.

On the effects of baptism

One of the topics that came up early on, particularly when talking or reading the works of those outside my own tradition is on what baptism exactly does. There is a good deal of theology behind this but the more informal conversation tended to focus more on questions like Do people baptised later in life take their faith more seriously? Does the infant who is baptised turn out a better disciple of Christ than those who aren’t?

The consensus I came to was that in, after trading anecdotes with a great many, I cannot say definitively one way or another. Baptism makes a difference to an individual but there is no discernible difference in the behaviour of people en masse regarding the timing of Baptism. It depends on the broader context, those around the person baptised and the providence of God himself.

My own experience as an Anglican, where many unchurched infants are still baptised at the unchurched parent’s request, was that I grew up amidst a great many peers who were baptised and took security from it when I was not. Yet I was the only one, of a small minority, who attended a church growing up. Later in life, at university, all the Christians I knew were credo-baptists, as were all the flourishing churches they attended. Paedobaptists, if they did exist, didn’t participate in the Christian intervarsity bodies present on campus. The Church of England and Roman Catholic churches were only, apparently, occupied by pensioners, barring one person I knew, and I don’t know what his views on baptism were. I say this having gotten the chance to know the local CoE parish quite well having done some work for them after graduation. The trend of me encountering paedobaptised ‘nones’ and credobaptised confessing Christians continued (and largely continues) until I started interacting with more Anglicans, and clergy, my own age after moving to London some years ago.

To counter the aforementioned I’ve heard is that the situation is very different in America where credobaptism is more prevalent. US paedobaptists have stressed to me that my own experiences of the UK paedobaptised can be mirrored in that of the US credobaptised. My own minister at my current parish confesses however that whatever you do it doesn’t seem to make much difference as an act itself practically, it is dependant on the context around them. Yet this doesn’t stop me engaging in counterfactuals; would my brother be a Christian today had he been baptised as an infant? Would I have fallen away or lapsed had I not been baptised of my own accord? God only knows. Much ink has been shed on this topic but any effect is hard to discern across traditions. I say this based on my now fairly frequent interactions with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants of many stripes on a fairly regular basis where I live now. Yet all parties acknowledge it to be important and whether one is advocating credo or paedo as a mode of baptism it is frequently asserted ‘yes’ it makes a difference albeit sometimes in distinct ways.

Baptism in scripture

Explanations and justifications for baptism inevitably arise from scripture. This is also a massive area itself but I will try and cover the sections of scripture that have been raised during this period. This will no doubt fail to be comprehensive but reflects my thinking on the various passages. These won’t be all passages on baptism, but ones I’ve had raised or encountered with a significance one way or another.

New Testament

John’s baptisms…

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ ”

Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”

Matthew 3:1-14

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.”

Acts 19:1-7

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

John 3:22-36

The first time we see baptism as something compelled is early on in the gospels and is unsurprisingly practised by John the Baptist. From what we see here this baptism is linked explicitly to repentance as a means of salvation. This is also positioned in direct contrast to John’s claim against the Pharisees and Sadducees as those seeing themselves saved by means of their privilege as inheritors and participants in the Abrahamic covenant.

With John’s language of ‘fruit’ emerging from ‘trees’ in the above passage we also see as a pattern later taken up by Paul in Galatians but with reference to the signs of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is something John himself also refers to. Yet he points out that the Holy Spirit is not as something he baptises by but something Christ will do later on. This is something John didn’t see himself exempt from.

This wasn’t Christian baptism and John’s disciples later must be baptised into the Christian community. The baptism was one of repentance, as a result they did not receive the Holy Spirit and all that inevitably entails. Should this be used as a pattern for our own baptism? John saw a relationship between his baptism and that to be done by the Holy Spirit. So could we say John’s model of baptism was a prototype of that which was to come? I do not think that entirely unreasonable. The key difference we see, however, in the passage I’ve quoted in Acts above is that subsequent Christians were baptised into Christ. Something John himself was aware that even he had been in need of. We also see in John 3 that Jesus’s disciples were already baptising during the same period as John. John see’s no conflict with this, despite the envy his disciples feel given Jesus’s popularity. So John’s mission and baptism was not a precursor necessarily but a means of bringing people to repentance in order to point them to Christ. His ministry perhaps waned as Christ’s established itself, which was fine with John.

John himself concludes this discussion with his disciples with statements pointing to the trinitarian nature of God being expressed through Jesus’s ministry. Which points us in turn to the name of the Trinity by which we are to be baptised. Yet the emphasis on the direct repentance of the subject being baptised is something that has never gone away.

Nicodemus…

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:1-8

To be ‘born again’ is a phrase I used to notice a lot amongst Christians before I moved to London. It is this passage in John that, more than any other, perhaps gives the foundation for it. What that means is its own topic but I think it is interesting that Jesus here talks about water and the spirit. Also that by using the image of birth it raises the question of choice. Do we choose when we are born? Either by flesh or by spirit? Yet in any case, it seems to allude to baptism by use of the term ‘water’ and that this is the means to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus asks ‘how?’ effectively ‘what agency must I exert in order to bring this about?’ Yet Jesus instead talks about the Spirit implying this is who determines who is born again rather than an individual’s will. This is some ways seems more sympathetic with paedobaptism but it does seem to necessitate an engagement of the will which fits very comfortably with a view that requires some form kind of confession by the subject.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares…

“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ””

Matthew 13:24-30

This passage was raised by a paedobaptist to me as indicative of the fact that the good and the bad are to be found in the visible body of the Church. That it is inevitable and can be evidenced by the many people mentioned in the Gospels and other NT texts who go astray despite receiving baptism. Its a form of argument against the view of baptism being a panacea for all wrongdoing or that the Church is entirely made up of the elect. In this they are correct but I think it a misnomer to say that therefore we shouldn’t worry so much about who we baptise, that the ability to baptise is an authority without responsibility. I can’t help but attaching such a reading to this discussion as comparable to adopting a laisez faire attitude on the subject on baptism which no tradition extends to adult baptism. Again suggesting the act is actually something functionally different to when an adult gets baptised, a bifurcation we don’t see anywhere else. Whatever our views and approach to baptism, it should be unified and done in the knowledge that baptism is in no way a solution to the existence of tares, or weeds, in the body, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discerning.

Let the little children come…

“Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.”

Matthew 19:13-15

This was one that was put in front of me early on as an argument for allowing infant baptism. The argument being that the believer should not withhold baptism from a child just as Jesus welcomed children which the disciples rebuked. My first reaction is that, if this was what the passage is about, I actually agree with this. The issue is I do not think this is about baptism and that I do not have an issue with children wishing to be baptised. What I find problematic are infants who cannot yet participate in any form. Newborns who cannot do what the children in the given passage details here.

This is also a passage I saw alluded to in Tertullian’s text ‘On Baptism’. The relevant segment reads…

“The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Now many are quick to bracket anything of Tertullian says with the fact that he was later a schismatic and a montanist. These things are problematic for him, and using him as a guide, but I do wonder if in this case, such cautions are a means of playing the man rather than the ball. If I focus on the reasoning employed by Tertullian here, I find myself agreeing with it. Yet there is also a line here which warrants further exploration “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins” which I will return to later on as a matter of consideration.

For the promise is to you and to your children…

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Acts 2:38,39

These verses are brought out frequently in discussions pertaining to the timing of baptism. The question, however, is when children are to be baptised. Paedobaptists say often ‘as early as possible’ as an analogue to Jewish circumcision rites. ‘Credobaptists’ upon a profession of faith as a response to God’s circumcision of the heart in a believer.

In bringing up this passage I can’t help but be reminded of John’s rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees…

“…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

Matthew 3:9

By invoking Abraham we are reminded that his children were and are children of the promise, not children of the flesh. As Paul explains in Romans…

“But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Romans 8:6-13

We also see this echoed in the words of Jesus who when approached by his family responded…

“…He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?”  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:48-50

So when we see talk of children, this can extend to biological children but it is predicated on them being those who “does the will of My Father in heaven” according to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no qualifying age limit to this but baptism is seen inevitably as a response to the ‘promise’ and not the ‘flesh’. Paul’s invocation of Jacob and Esau seems particularly cutting here and I have thought about this passage a lot in the light of the relationship between myself and my own brother. If we baptise on the basis of biology alone, or the faith of another, this does not seem in keeping with the understanding of children revealed here.

Ananias and Sapphira…

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.

Acts 5:1-11

This passage was raised by paedobaptists a number of times to indicate that even if one is baptised this is no sure sign that they are regenerate. Other examples include Judas and Simon Magus. The argument generally is that we actually cannot tell who is regenerate other than by their conduct and even that is no guarantor. You cannot pick the regenerate man so easily out of the crowd. Therefore we shouldn’t concern ourselves with such things when considering baptism. This however again raised the question of the effectual nature of baptism, because one can read about it extensively but practically this seems to be impossible to effectually discern authoritatively. At least in the conversations, I have had on this topic. Of course, it is ultimately impossible to totally judge the character of those baptised, especially in advance but does that mean we shouldn’t endeavour? I will cover this later but the early church placed stringent guidelines before those about to be baptised implying there was at least an attempt. This is obviously not extended to newborns but practically this floats the idea that in praxis infant baptism and adult baptism can’t help but be different things given how differently the participants are treated in advance. Even if the theology claims to be the same in both cases, yet we don’t see such a bifurcation in scripture but a consistent standard applied to those baptised.

The Ethiopian eunuch…

So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”

Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”

And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

Acts 8:34-38

I was challenged by a paedobaptist on the basis of this passage that catechism is not required in advance of baptism. The problem I saw with framing the passage in this way was that we see a profession of faith in advance of the baptism. This is one where the clear binaries break down for me between credo and paedobaptism. A profession of faith always seems to anticipate baptism. This also happens to be commentated on in Tertullian’s writings on the subject…

“If Philip so easily baptized the chamberlain, let us reflect that a manifest and conspicuous evidence that the Lord deemed him worthy had been interposed. The Spirit had enjoined Philip to proceed to that road: the eunuch himself, too, was not found idle, nor as one who was suddenly seized with an eager desire to be baptized; but, after going up to the temple for prayer’s sake, being intently engaged on the divine Scripture, was thus suitably discovered — to whom God had, unasked, sent an apostle, which one, again, the Spirit bade adjoin himself to the chamberlain’s chariot. The Scripture which he was reading falls in opportunely with his faith: Philip, being requested, is taken to sit beside him; the Lord is pointed out; faith lingers not; water needs no waiting for; the work is completed, and the apostle snatched away. But Paul too was, in fact, ‘speedily’ baptized: for Simon, his host, speedily recognized him to be an appointed vessel of election. God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every petition may both deceive and be deceived. And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Tertullian here seems to be essentially saying that discernment is meant to be exercised pertaining to the context and how God has led up to the moment in question. In both cases detailed Philip and Simon ‘recognised’ the recipients of baptism as those appointed to God. Now whilst we are not Ethiopian Eunuchs or Paul himself surely some measure of discernment may be exercised by those undertaking and carrying out baptism? Doesn’t the disposition of the subject have some measure of involvement? It seems so.

Just before moving on from this point, reading around on this passage, it turns out that the confession of faith on the part of the Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t universally appear in all available manuscripts. However, Irenaeus, writing around the same time as Tertullian in the 2nd century attests to its existence in his well-known text “Against Heresies” but this profession of faith is actually omitted from later manuscripts. Why is anyone’s guess but I’ve seen people speculate on the Ethiopians confession being a flashpoint for earlier debates on the topic of baptism without profession by the subject, as is the case with newborns?

Cornelius’s household…

Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”

Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all— that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Acts 10:30-48

Cornelius’s household, and others like his, I found were an almost foundational text on which arguments for the baptising of newborns are made. The idea being that Cornelius, Lydia, Stephanas, the Philippian Jailer and others had children in their households who were baptised at the same moment as the head of the household. This isn’t unreasonable and I find that acceptable. I don’t have an issue with children being baptised so much as those without a profession. Yet the text doesn’t qualify, it doesn’t mention children but it doesn’t exclude them so whilst its an argument from silence it is still an argument which we should look at.

If we are speaking specifically to this passage we can note that all those who were baptised began to “speak with tongues and magnify God”. This criteria for me seems an acceptable one for baptism given what Peter had previously experienced in the run-up to the household. If we once more consider Tertullian’s words “God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it” in this passage we see it amongst all who were baptised. This story, and those like it, are often framed in the context of the head of household’s conversion bringing about baptism but this isn’t the case in Cornelius’s household. They all responded by speaking tongues and magnifying God. A pattern we also see with the Jailer’s family in Acts 16:30-34 where Paul throughout the night tells the family of Jesus, whom they accept, before proceeding with baptism.

If we state there must be some level of maturity that is requisite for baptism, then that is clearly not true and we do not see this. Yet we do see the profession of belief in Jesus before baptism. Jesus himself tells people that far from saving households he is as likely to split them. In Matthew 10 we read…

For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:35-37

Jesus here explicitly invokes the term household as a site of division which affirms the agency of the individual in coming to Christ or rejecting him. We likewise see Paul talk, in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy…

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

1 Corinthians 7:14

When discussing this a paedobaptist peer pointed to this passage to argue that children are made holy by baptism. Whilst children ‘are’ made holy by baptism I’m not sure this is what is occurring in this context, at least not to the degree imagined. It is also worth noting that this passage serves to point out that the early church was familiar with mixed-faith households, so not everyone was baptised upon the conversion of a patriarch or dominant household member. So this passage in a sense upholds Our Lord’s warning about setting division amidst the household and also points to the individual nature of conversion.

What I understood of Paul’s writing here to suggests that an imputation, a form of spiritual osmosis, via the proximity of the believer in the household drawing family members towards Christ both via their witness but also the agency of the holy spirit in the believer. The work of the spirit isn’t decontextualised geographically but is at work in the homes, towns and nations in which believers are found providing a blessing for even for those who have not yet accepted Christ. This passage points to a form of the sanctification of the household separate from that of the world and a freedom from the pagan practices that surrounded them. John Chrysostom said on the passage…

“What then, is the Greek holy? Certainly not: for he said not, He is holy; but, He is sanctified in his wife. And this he said, not to signify that he is holy, but to deliver the woman as completely as possible from her fear and lead the man to desire the truth. For the uncleanness is not in the bodies wherein there is communion, but in the mind and the thoughts. And here follows the proof; namely, that if you continuing unclean have offspring, the child, not being of you alone, is of course unclean or half clean. But now it is not unclean. To which effect he adds, else were your children unclean; but now are they holy; that is, not unclean. But the Apostle calls them, holy, by the intensity of the expression again casting out the dread arising from that sort of suspicion.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on First Corinthians

Circumcision of the heart…

For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Romans 2:25-29

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

Romans 4:9-12

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deuteronomy 30:6

The topic of circumcision seems at the heart of baptism for those who hold to unconditional paedobaptism particular in the reformed tradition. This was something I didn’t really encounter amongst laity but quite a lot amongst those Ministers who actively championed the Reformed tradition as their own. I will confess I find this argument equally the most plausible but also the most overly complicated and obscure. It feels simultaneously like it is clutching at straws and yet on to something but never managed to stop feeling somewhat esoteric.

The main thrust seems to be that just as the Old Testament gave the sign of the circumcision as a marker of the covenant, the New Testament has effectively ‘hot-swapped’ baptism as a new circumcision of the heart. The passage above from Colossians is often pointed to as it describes baptism as the circumcision ‘made without hands’ which touches on the Deuteronomy passage describing the circumcision of the heart. This too touches on Romans 4:11 which describes circumcision as a seal of Abraham’s persistent faith. This is a lot like how we talk about baptism and considering Israel circumcised their newborns we should, therefore, baptise ours. This is very broad strokes but this seems to be a decent top-level view.

The issue with the baptism as circumcision argument is that, whilst an overlap undeniably exists, it runs the risk of falling into the same trap the Pharisees and Sadducees fell into, which John the Baptist accused them of. That is essentially conflating the visible body of Israel with Israel proper. Paul expands on this in Romans 9…

“I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.”

Romans 9:1-8

So Paul here draws a distinction between Israel and Israel proper, many Reformed likewise draw a distinction between the Church visible and the Church invisible. Thomas Cranmer in an early draft of the 39 Articles wrote…

In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: Thirteen Articles

However this raises the question which I mentioned beforehand, how can one ever really determine if one is a member of both the visible Church and the invisible Church? Israel or Israel proper? Is baptism now a means of gaming a circumcision of the heart previously unavailable to the people of Israel? Or is it effectively a less physically drastic and scarring form of the circumcision of the flesh? Can we force the law of God to be written on our heart? Or is baptism not really a sign or seal of such things? This form of baptism it seems, in effect, boils down to a rite by some definitions different only in style to Jewish circumcision and not nature. Which is ironic given the grief Baptists are given for their approach to Baptism which in a certain light seems to be taken more seriously. Some traditions believe in an ex opere operato form of baptism but it seems to me that baptism is inevitably a response to God’s work beginning in a person’s life that precedes baptism, this is evidenced by the account of Cornelius’s household and the Ethiopian eunuch, they are essentially the same story in many ways told in different contexts. Baptism is a seal, but it is a seal of something God has already begun and is bearing visible fruit, this fruit anticipates baptism which brings the full measure of the holy spirit.

The first ecumenical council…

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Acts 15:1,2

In debates around baptism as circumcision, I find it interesting that the first council of Jerusalem isn’t brought up more frequently. The reason for the gathering is precisely because some people insist on the continuation of circumcision within the infant church so that the law of Moses is fulfilled. This is rejected by the apostles under James and yet no overlap on the roles of baptism or circumcision is raised despite the perfect opportunity being presented. Rather than rejecting the premise why didn’t they instead tell those in error that baptism was actually the new circumcision? It would be a win-win result. Christians converts have a circumcision of the heart in baptism without still operating under the law and necessitating the actual physical act. This is the argument we see people invoking with the use of passages like Colossians 2:11-13. Yet this is conspicuous in its absence suggesting the line drawn between the two isn’t quite as clear-cut as it’s made out by some commentators. We see this when we read on in Acts 15.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:6-11

Here we see again, with reference to the heart, the idea of a circumcision of the heart we read about in Deuteronomy. The first council made it clear that it wasn’t complying with the law of Moses that saved now but by faith through the grace of God and evidenced by the Holy Spirit. Can we game a circumcision of the heart by baptism in those who cannot or would not give a sincere profession of their faith? No. Faith seems a call to which Baptism is the response.

Old Testament Emphasis

Noah’s Ark…

…when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

1 Peter 3:20-22

By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

Hebrews 11:7

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.

Genesis 7:1

But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.

Matthew 24:37-41

When we read the story of Noah and his Ark we clearly see salvation for a household on the basis of Noah’s faith alone, not that of the individuals in the household. This is then explicitly linked to baptism by Paul (I believe) in Hebrews. We notice in Genesis chapter 9 that this is despite the character of his household being a mixed bag  (Canaan in particular). This seems to suggest a form of ex opere operato form of salvation, the deed itself is effectual, just as the Ark was effectual in delivering salvation from the waters, I find this argument quite convincing. Some point to the combination of the wood and water as the combination of the cross and baptism. Ambrose of Milan wrote on this…

All flesh was corrupt by its iniquities. My Spirit, says God, shall not remain among men, because they are flesh. Whereby God shows that the grace of the Spirit is turned away by carnal impurity and the pollution of grave sin. Upon which, God, willing to restore what was lacking, sent the flood and bade just Noah go up into the ark. And he, after having, as the flood was passing off, sent forth first a raven which did not return, sent forth a dove which is said to have returned with an olive twig. You see the water, you see the wood [of the ark], you see the dove, and do you hesitate as to the mystery?

The water, then, is that in which the flesh is dipped, that all carnal sin may be washed away. All wickedness is there buried. The wood is that on which the Lord Jesus was fastened when He suffered for us. The dove is that in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended, as you have read in the New Testament, Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind. The raven is the figure of sin, which goes forth and does not return, if, in you, too, inwardly and outwardly righteousness be preserved

Ambrose of Milan, On The Mysteries 3:10-11

Yet the unspoken element here when this is raised is that Noah’s household, for all their failings, were different to the rest of the people during this period for they alone entered into the Ark and did so consciously. They did not mock and scoff at Noah like the rest of the generation. To really claim that Noah’s household was saved eternally on the basis of the faith of a parent alone seems to suggest a form of antinomianism. We know this does not bear up because sin persisted in the seed of Noah from which all people alive are now inheritors, it didn’t last much beyond them getting out of the ark. Particularly if we note the contrast between the eventual fates of Canaan’s descendants and the Israelites. If baptism and the cross save does this negate our own agency? No. To believe otherwise is to fall, once more, into the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees which John lambasted. Our agency enables us to respond to the Holy Spirit and brings us to repentance. Just as the agency of Noah’s household was exercised in bringing them into salvation from the flood. Just as it was the agency of Lot that saved his household from the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet it was that same agency of his wife to be lost via her disobedience. We cannot be perfect in our discernment but that does not me we should abdicate discernment when baptising.

The Red Sea Crossing…

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land,and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Exodus 14:21,22

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

1 Corinthians 10:1-5

I’ve had this passage raised to me with individuals offering that because the entirety of Israel passed through the sea, all were thus baptised. Thus we should not make a distinction in regard to the age when we baptise. We see Paul make the link between the crossing and baptism and textually there is the contrast between the Israelites and the Egyptians as an echo of Noah and his Generation. The argument, as a result, is essentially the same in both cases although in this instance all ages are inevitably included in the host of Moses.

John Chrysostom’s homily on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 is really excellent on this passage and highlights the link between the crossing and the subsequent food and drink as mirroring baptism and the subsequent communion meal we experience in the church. However, he is at pains to emphasise that this ultimately profited them nothing, all those who crossed the Red Sea perished. He says…

As touching His gift then, such is the case: now let us observe also what follows, and consider, whether when they showed themselves unworthy of the gift, He spared them. Nay, this you can not say. Wherefore also he added, Howbeit with most of them God was not well-pleased; although He had honored them with so great honor. Yea, it profited them nothing, but most of them perished. The truth is, they all perished, but that he might not seem to prophesy total destruction to these also, therefore he said, most of them. And yet they were innumerable, but their number profited them nothing: and these were all so many tokens of love; but not even did this profit them, inasmuch as they did not themselves show forth the fruits of love.

John Chrysostom, Homily 23 on First Corinthians

Someone hearing the above may be tempted to draw two conclusions on the passage. One is a more laisez faire attitude of ‘it doesn’t seem to matter then when baptism is experienced’. The other is ‘let us then baptise those we know (as best is able) would be grateful for these ‘tokens of love’ such that they aren’t squandered’. Far from all being ‘baptised’ in the Red Sea, they did so only to find their bodies ‘scattered in the wilderness’. Baptism, therefore, seems the ordinary means of salvation but it is no guarantor of it and a judicious application inevitably seems wiser than an indiscriminate one.

Jonah…

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said:

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,

And He answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

And You heard my voice.

For You cast me into the deep,

Into the heart of the seas,

And the floods surrounded me;

All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight;

Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’

The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;

The deep closed around me;

Weeds were wrapped around my head.

I went down to the moorings of the mountains;

The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;

Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,

O Lord, my God.

“When my soul fainted within me,

I remembered the Lord;

And my prayer went up to You,

Into Your holy temple.

Those who regard worthless idols

Forsake their own Mercy.

But I will sacrifice to You

With the voice of thanksgiving;

I will pay what I have vowed.

Salvation is of the Lord.”

So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah 2:1-10

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 12:39-41

Jonah is one of my favourite stories in the Bible because it is a twice-told story of repentance. The first being that of Jonah itself and the second being that of the Babylonian people. At the same time, I can’t help but empathise with Jonah’s character as he is constantly torn in two directions, his own and that of the Lord’s on every step of the journey. Jonah’s own story, however, mimics that of baptism. On the boat, we see confession, in the water we see his death and at his arrival on dry land his resurrection. This is a pattern we see repeatedly and is mirrored in the aforementioned stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius in the New Testament. Confession, death and resurrection which mirrors the pattern we see across the Bible: Creation, Decreation and Recreation.

The sign of Jonah also prefigures and joins us to Christ in baptism. John Chrysostom said, commenting on Matthew 12:41…

“Now is He striking the first note of the doctrine of His resurrection, and confirming it by the type.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

And later on…

“For this cause we everywhere show forth His death, both in the mysteries, and in baptism, and in all the rest. Therefore Paul also cries with a clear voice, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

Now can we have baptism without confession? No. Can we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ without confessing him as Lord? No. Without confession Jonah, and those with him would have been lost to the waters. Instead, the committing of Jonah to the waters also brought about the repentance and thanksgiving of those with him. A pattern we see with the subsequent repentance of the King of Nineveh and his subjects. It wasn’t the repentance of the King alone that saves Nineveh but the repentance of all peoples of the city that brings salvation and stays God’s judgement.

Conclusion

There are more passages I could bring up. Passages concerning Aaron’s washing before entering the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:19-20). Washing as part of ritual purification (Leviticus 15). Ezekiel washing and anointing with oil (Ezekiel 16:9) or Naaman’s baptism in the Jordan river (2 Kings 5:10-14).  Yet I do not think these specifically speak to the timing of baptism. I have however tried to cover the passages I think have some immediate significance to the timing of baptism, coming away with the impression that anytime is the right time for baptism when preceded by a confession of the subject.

Baptism is linked to circumcision but different to the latter in that it is, to use Abrahamic language, predominantly in relation to the ‘promise’ wherein the other is one attached to the ‘flesh’. It seems inevitably attached to an individual’s coming to faith that may be part of, or distinct from, the conversion of a broader household. Salvation seems inevitably attached to such an act in the majority of cases although we have numerous examples in scripture of those who subsequently fall away suggesting that not all who are baptised are regenerate or actually saved. These examples include: Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus and those Paul calls out in his epistles as having departed from the truth or had been ‘delivered to Satan’ by the church. However, all of these are baptised under the impression that as best can be discerned they are repentant and confessing Christ as he revealed himself and subsequently taught by the apostles.

The act itself is by immersion or dipping is done in response to public confession and in the name of the Holy Trinity. After which individuals are considered full-fledged members of the Christian community.

I’ve tried to focus on passages that might impact the discussion of the timing of baptism but am aware there is much more to be said on scripture on this topic. However, I am aware this is quite long and have hoped to go for breadth rather than depth in this. I will in the subsequent sections go into more detail on the practice and how discussions and decisions around this have manifested themselves in the church. I will also explore the relationship of baptism to communion and related topics like confirmation or chrismation.

In the next section, I will attempt to parse my views on the topic in the light of the patristic discussion on baptism and early church practice.

 

Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.

For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.

Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.

Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.

Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something  can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.

This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.

There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.

At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.

The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.

The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.

In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.

As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.

Disability, faith and the church

Disability, faith and the church

Depending on who you talk to as many as 1 in 100 people could be psychopaths. Some of the defining characteristics of a psychopath include a lack of..

  1. Anxiety
  2. Remorse
  3. Empathy

Listening to a talk on the subject I wondered to what degree this impacts someone coming to faith. Even if we get more general I feel theres an argument that some people genuinely have the biological cards stacked against them concerning coming to faith. Often when we discuss faith and make appeals to others we place an emphasis on the mind at one extreme or the emotions at another. What do we when confronted with such people incapable of responding properly to either of these? Not just the psychopath but those with learning difficulties or conditions like severe Downs or later life onset conditions like Alzheimers?

When listening to the talk and thinking on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Apologist David Wood who self diagnoses’s himself as a psychopath. It’s clearly not impossible for such people to come to faith but does this mean that biology or psychology has no consideration? If we were to do a quantitative study of our Churches we’d inevitably find certain people appear more than others. Psychopaths, for example, are better represented in the Prison population compared to non-Psychopaths. Likewise we’ll find various  aspects of the population both over and under emphasised in Churches. This will change from one church to another but ultimately “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and unless we accurately reflect our local populations will need to reconsider how we can bring these people into the church. Psychopathy, whilst having no bearing on comprehension is still a handicap and any number of similar or related conditions can potentially exclude people from not just participation in a church but from faith itself as we understand it.

So much of Protestant faith is framed through a lens of engaging both the head and the heart. Salvation is by faith alone but what about those people who struggle, or lack the mental categories or presence, that contribute to faith? We could wash our hands at this point and give it to the Holy Spirit, but whilst its impossible to dismiss the Holy Spirit at work in our lives it seems fatalistic to use it as a pretext to dismiss these issues. Its here that I wonder if a view espoused more recently by NT Wright of the Church as a form of covenant community might have an explanation. Salvation, communion with God is seen less through the lens of individual receptiveness to the Gospel but by participation in the community which is collectively saying we trust in Jesus Christ.

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other

N.T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.

The Church in this light is less a collection of individuals bound by common creed but a community, a family focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is a core component still but it isn’t directly pertaining to justification, instead faith leads to participation in the family of Jesus Christ out of which comes justification. Here then, participation in the family is the emphasis which is still accessible for those with conditions like Downs, Alzheimers or even Psychopaths who might struggle or be otherwise unable to have faith in the conventional sense. Faith is still a core component but theres a nuance here I think is important. This perspective isn’t without its own areas of concern and there are probably implications to this that need to be realised but thinking about this has made me consider it in a way I hadn’t previously.

I think sometimes theres a temptation to expect Christians to be a certain kind of person. The problem with this perspective is, unless the entire neighbourhood, nation and world eventually becomes that kind of person the Church will also be perpetually hobbled. For England to become a nation of  Christians again the Church will have to look very different to what it does today. It’ll need to anticipate the entire spectrum of human nature and have a place for it. This doesn’t mean necessarily changing our theology or liberalising but perhaps coming to increasingly view faith as a community effort rather than an individual one. Theirs a tension to be found in calling the people to repent and simultaneously the church accessible to the people. In the words of Bonhoeffer..

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it..

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

All of this touches on a broader question to me. So much of our faith is hinged on our individual ability to respond – in this light it is quite individualistic. I do not think it is a coincidence then in this light that practices like the corporate sacrament of communion is deprioritised in many Protestant churches. The individual response is important, but perhaps it is the means rather than the end itself.

A few years ago, when the emerging church was popular, I knew a good many people who felt they didn’t need Church, they had their own private thing going on they’d say. Many of those who attended church would ask these people ‘how do you get fed?’ by which they meant – where do you get taught scripture? They asked ‘where do you find accountability?’ by which they meant – how do you ensure you aren’t stumbling into heterodoxy? These were poor questions because the exposition of scripture itself is nothing miraculous, you can get it off the internet, and heterodoxy abounds in so many churches today.

So why go to Church? Perhaps because the Church is the covenant, the Ark, the body and the family of Abraham that is committed to following Christ. It is more than mere acquiescence to a particular set of propositions or an emotional response to the Gospel. The belonging itself is crucial and is emphasised by the practices Jesus himself handed down to us in Communion and Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 ‘Is Christ divided?’. The answer is no. This makes me ask the question of my own views on communion, anyone can break bread and drink wine but what does that mean if we do so outside the Church? At worst we do so in order to delude ourselves that we can engage with God on our own terms. Perhaps it isn’t just faith but also the church that binds us together, particularly if we’re struggling or just can’t comprehend the Gospel. I’m reminded of the final words of Christopher McCandless ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I think its true, but I think it extends to faith too. Our faith is only real when worked out together.

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

I have to catch myself sometimes, I never thought I’d be this kind of Christian. Even a couple of years ago I was a fairly generic brand of miscellaneous evangelical. I’m still trying to work through what I think and where its leading me, part of this is getting my head round the challenge and appeal of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is a foundational text for the Anglican church, its been adapted for use by both Catholics and Orthodox and at a time was the backbone of Church services nearly everywhere English was spoken. It contains Prayers but it also contains Orders of Service, Psalms to be sung or prayed, Catechism, the Creed of St Athanasius, the 39 articles of the Anglican church and more. For many it’s considered not just a foundational part of Anglicanism but of the English language alongside Shakespeare and the Bible. It was originally compiled during the reign of King Edward the VI, the son of Henry the VIII by Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the decline of liturgy and the various changes within the English church in the 20th century however the Book of Common Prayer is currently out of favour with many Christians. I have the 1662 pocket edition and it reads like the King James Bible, to many and myself initially it can prove complicated and overwhelming. Yet this is partly because, archaic language aside, its prayers are primarily corporate in nature which is something increasingly rare today. The secret to the BCP is in its name – it is meant to be common, or rather something we share ‘in common’ with one another. One person I was talking with, about the liturgy and prayers of the BCP, articulated it in the following way.

One of the things that is most blessed about the liturgy is the fact that it binds us into the community, whether we are praying in our corner alone or united with others in one place. The prayers are ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’. It transcends space and time, uniting believers around the world and through the ages — not just to Cranmer but beyond, through the centuries of medieval development and to the ancient church. I love that feature of it. And this emphasis on community, made explicit in many prayers but also built into the traditional structure of Anglicanism from parish to diocese through province to primate, is definitely at odds with much evangelicalism — and this is a shame, because there is something beautiful about the knowledge, zeal, commitment, and drive for holiness that is embodied in evangelicalism at its best. But today, evangelicalism, even in corporate worship, continually uses ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘mine’ (one thinks immediately of the Beatles) and spends much of the time of praise looking to the praiser and his or her experience, not to the one being praised.

 

The Prayer Book sets us free from that without jettisoning the important, deep, biblical theology evangelicals claim as their own.
The use in the prayers of ‘we’ and ‘our’ aren’t original – it mirrors the Lord’s prayer.
OUR Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
(For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.)
Amen.

 

Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer in this sense is common too and if you recite it with any frequency, then this is liturgy in a fashion. Its tragic that, in my own experience, many evangelical churches seldom say it anymore publicly, or even share communion that often anymore.
The other thing I found challenging about the BCP is that it contains morning and evening prayers. I had to check with someone but the BCP assumes this is done every day. The idea of church being open every day, both morning and evening for me was pretty challenging. The idea of getting together with others early in the morning reminded me of a letter by Pliny the Younger on the Early Church.
..they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so..

 

Excerpt from the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

This idea suggested Church, not just Christianity as a way of life. It was something always going on, always coming together and the emphasis was on the ‘common’ faith shared between believers. This is a Church, like the early church, which changed the way society was structured and run. Discussing this with my own minister I was disappointed to hear that the majority of ministers trained today have little to no exposure to the Book of Common Prayer and we are exchanging our heritage for something that seems in comparison so minimal. I only knew anything about because I sought it out, otherwise this is a text many of us either knowingly disregard or are ignorant of.

More recently when a family member was admitted to hospital I was distraught and I prayed till I didn’t know what to say. Out of words I went and picked up the BCP opening it on the section detailing ministry for the sick and ailing. Praying those words knowing that they had been said thousands of times of people in similar situations throughout the ages was profound. The words themselves have power, but so does the common nature of the text I had been given. I knew whatever happened, me and my relative were bound together in the footsteps of Christians who knew that same pain and struggle and responded by bringing it to God. When you push past the archaic language the words are surprisingly candid, human and they help give us focus, directing us out of ourselves towards God.

The BCP is full of prayers thanking God for all areas of our life but it also contains everything you need to know theologically to be considered an Anglican. It contains a Catechism, a Creed and the 39 articles. If an apocalypse were to happen today and all knowledge of this world to disappear, you could, upon discovering the BCP amongst the rubble, continue the practice and belief of the Anglican church from this small book. The faith in the BCP is a common faith, a public faith that is easy to understand and consistently referencing scripture throughout. The BCP is a ticket to a new (but really ancient) vision of church.

Despite all this I struggle to read the BCP consistently, the prayers are long and its not a fashionable thing to do. Yet theres an appeal to it, to be honest it feels a bit of dirty secret when I’m amongst my classically evangelical friends. The BCP is meant really for corporate settings, but I pray it alone because no one really does it anymore – not even my minister. I pray that changes. Even when I struggle I’ve taken to incorporating elements from it into my more open prayer. The doxologies, key phrases and terms are hooks I use to tap into the theology contained within it when I go about my day.

I don’t really understand the point in all the formality in so many church services but I am now beginning to understand the point of the BCP. If you’ve never read the BCP I would encourage you to do so. For all the christian books and music published today you can do worse than to direct funds elsewhere temporarily and pick up a copy for yourself. Let it speak for itself and instead of merely reading the words, like I used to, consider what is being said and why on the pages you read. Its worth it.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?

The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.

Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?

One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.

As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.

This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.