Cohn Buchanan is renowned for his support of infant, baptism over many years
and his arguments drawn from both Old and New Testaments do not need any.
repetition from me. During my 20 years in General Synod I. made many speeches
on the subject and wrote a theological appendix to the Synod Report ‘Christian
latest piece rightly includes the phrase “we... claim that the Bible is our
supreme authority,” and that has been (and remains) the position of the
Church of England. Indeed, in the House of Bishops’ Report on ‘The Nature
of Christian Belief’ (1986) is the statement that “the Scriptures ... both
Old and New, must always have a controlling authority.” We need, it adds,
“to place ourselves continually under the Scriptures.” Evangelical
Anglicans especially (but not uniquely) value such a commitment. Nevertheless, Anglicans have
loyally for centuries recognised a commitment to ‘Scripture, Tradition, and
Reason.’ The excellent books on baptism by Michael Green, Gordon Kuhrt and
Cohn Buchanan all accept this but, like most evangelicals, do not place much
emphasis on the patristic evidence. Sadly, most evangelicals are largely
ignorant of the Fathers and their teaching.
then, that a sound biblical case can be made for covenant theology, rooted
in God’s promise to Abraham, marked by circumcision and developed by Paul
in his letters to the Galatians and Romans, we may properly ask what happened
in the early church concerning the baptism of infants?
recent years it has become fashionable to decry the idea that infant baptism
was the normal practice of the church in the first few centuries. I recently
heard of an American Jesuit theologian who maintains that it wasn’t
introduced until the 5th century. So what is the evidence to contradict this
inaccurate and dogmatic denial?
begin with lrenaeus, the late 2nd century bishop of Lyons in France. He
probably originated in western Turkey where he knew Polycarp (who had known
John and others ‘who knew Jesus). Irenaeus says of Jesus that he came to “save
all of those who through him are reborn into God, infants, young children,
boys, the mature and older people.” He found no difficulty in the idea of
the ‘rebirth’ of infants. Earlier, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, spoke of
“many men and women of 60 or 70 years who have been disciples of Christ
since childhood” and Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, at his martyrdom
testified that “Eighty and six years have I served Christ.”
Neither Ignatius nor Polycarp explicitly speak of
infant baptism though it is hard to argue that Irenaeus did not have baptism
in mind while speaking of ‘rebirth’. Their evidence is not conclusive Abut
it is certainly supportive when one turns to Tertullian, Origen and Hippolytus.
As Buchanan reminds us, Tertullian recognised that infant baptism was normal
for the children of Christian parents but went on to argue that the infant
offspring of pagans who had just come to faith should be postponed.
Origen, one of the greatest early theologians and the
son of a Christian leader who taught in Alexandria, says quite categorically
that “the church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising
infants” and he repeats this in his writings. Meanwhile, Hippolytus, the ‘most
important theologian’ in early 3rd century Rome, gives clear instruction
about the manner in which baptism was to be administered. “First,” he
says, “baptise the little ones ... for those who cannot speak, their parents
should speak, or another who belongs to the family.” Cyprian, bishop of
Carthage around 260, countering a sceptical opponent said “no one in our
Council agreed with you.”
By the time of Augustine (around 400) after a short
period of reaction against infant baptism, following Constantine’s ‘Christianising’
of the Empire, both Ambrose, bishop of Milan,.
To view the
related pages click on the boxes below
59 David Perry cited
evidence that the oft-quoted Cyprian-Fidus letter did NOT support
universal infant baptism as below:
SWINE ‘FLU’ 2009 BUT PLAGUE 252
252 AD. Bishop Fidus, an otherwise unknown North African bishop
consulted Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, suggesting that infants ought
not to be baptised within the second or third day after their birth
but on the eighth day, so as to relate the tradition of circumcision.
and the sixty six colleagues who met in
early in 253 rejected this idea. Cyprian wrote to Fidus (epistle 64):
“we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course
which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather
judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one
born of man. ….. We must strive that, if possible, no soul be
reply is often quoted as evidence for a well established practice of
infant baptism. This is the case for Aland (Did the Early Church
Baptise Infants page 47) “…we must conclude that infant baptism at
this time in
was not only a Church rule but a Church requirement”.
fact it is nothing of the kind. The Church in
had been established for well over 150 years. If the baptism of
healthy infants were a long established custom, it is hard to see why
Fidus would need any advice on procedure.
would have been familiar with the practice of clinical baptism,
whether of adults or children or neonates. So why does he ask his
reason is simple. After the persecution of 250 and the crisis over the
handling of the lapsed in 251 was added a virulent plague in 252.
Cyprian wrote a short treatise De
Martalitate. In it he gives a graphic description of the
plague’s symptoms and extols the virtues of an accelerated departure
from this life to the life of the world to come De Mort. 15 “Many of
our people die in this mortality, that is, many of our people are
liberated from this world. This mortality, as it is a plague to Jews
and Gentiles and enemies of Christ, so it is a departure to salvation
to God’s servants.”
continues: “Assuredly he may fear to die, who, not being regenerated
of water and the Spirit, is delivered over to the fires of Gehenna; he
may fear to die who is not enrolled in the cross and passion of
Christ; he may fear to die, who from this death shall pass over to a
second death;” (de mort. 14).
believes there is no salvation outside the Church.
Ally that to the vivid expectation of death as the gateway to joy
or damnation and it is hard not to imagine the social consequences.
The plague could strike at random. Now was the time to make sure that
everyone whom one loved or valued had been baptised, “regenerated by
water and the Spirit”. The many emergency baptisms that took place
will have levelled the differences in age and awareness. No time for a
catechumenate programme when people may be dead within a day. As
Cyprian says in his reply to Fidus, “but we all rather judge that
the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of
man. ….. We must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost.”
is being undertaken is the emergency baptism of households, friends
and neighbours, including, infants, in the face of the plague.
Jeremias nor Aland nor even Maxwell Johnson (The Rites of Christian
Initiation 2007) in their treatments of Cyprian’s letter to Fidus
make any reference to the plague or to Cyprian’s De
Mortalitate. This failure obscures the salient fact that Epistle
64 is not discussing regular baptism nor typical clinical baptism but emergency
baptism. How a Church behaves during a plague is no guide to its
regular practice. Therefore letter 64 is inadmissible as evidence of
normative infant baptism.