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Patristic Evidence
Michael Saward felt compelled to add patristic evidence!
 

Bishop 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 Initiation’ (1991).

 

Buchanan’s 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.

 

Given 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?

 

In 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?

 

We 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,.

 

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In Update 59 David Perry cited evidence that the oft-quoted Cyprian-Fidus letter did NOT support universal infant baptism as below:

NOT SWINE ‘FLU’ 2009 BUT PLAGUE 252  

In 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.  

Cyprian and the sixty six colleagues who met in Carthage 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 lost.”  

This 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 Africa was not only a Church rule but a Church requirement”.  

In fact it is nothing of the kind. The Church in North Africa 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.    

Fidus would have been familiar with the practice of clinical baptism, whether of adults or children or neonates. So why does he ask his question?  

The 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.”  

He 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).  

Cyprian 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.”

What is being undertaken is the emergency baptism of households, friends and neighbours, including, infants, in the face of the plague.  

Neither 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.  

David Perry

 

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