Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Baptism and Liturgy - some simple answers (No.1)

(or perhaps that should be: some answers from a simple person!)

In response to 'Baptism - getting down with the kids' I have had a couple of great dialogues with people and both yielded something that was a challenge and a chance to think a bit theologically. Here's the first in a series of (at the moment at least) two:

'If you didn't do the paedobaptism bit you wouldn't have that problem - our church only baptises believers' because that's the Biblical way.'

I quite liked this because I have a few baptist friends with whom this debate have been held in the past and the problem is that they don't only discount the baptism of children as wrong but are also generally to be found in an 'anabaptist' position too (that means they 'rebaptise' those who haven't been baptise to their satisfaction - an issue I have demonstrated my theological disquiet over before). But this is all about infants and so I will stick to the script and the discussion.

As I understand it, and recall from a lecture on the didache and early Christian practice, Christianity has made baptism (and communion) open to children from pretty much day one. We have placed more and more store on understanding and yet this has been put aside in favour, if the people I'm hearing are to be believed, for a reversal of this in the current mood and move regarding baptism. An interesting place to be as it appears that we are able to refuse baptism on but one cause, that of not being properly prepared and yet, I have a sneaky feeling that what we have before us is the fruit of the tree of unpreparedness.

We baptise because we've always baptised and the throwing out of the baby, without the baptism water, only really came into play (if I remember correctly) around the end of the 16th - beginning of the 17th Century and it was here that we get clever and decide that it's only believer's baptism that carries any validity - but (and I can be wrong) I think it was Hippolytus (early 3rd Century) who wrote something like: 'Children should be baptised, speaking for themselves if they can and if not, having parents or others speak for them.'

Think that might be a clincher but I know some might say it's still profession that's to the fore and so I turn to Origen, in his commentary on the Romans, who states that the Church took up the tradition of paedobaptism from the apostles who understood that original sin needed to be washed clean by water and the indwelling of the Spirit.

Augustine (the Hippo) in the early 5th century makes a big point in saying that infant baptism is not to be written off or mocked - it is something given by the Apostles [Literal Interpretation of Genesis].

I think that there's a fairly substantial corpus of opinion from people much nearer to Jesus (500 - 100 years) and the early Church who would support baptising children - regardless of how clever we might be when it comes to creating a theology that makes our view fail to hold water with which we might baptise children!

We might also look at the parallels with circumcision and covenant theology which was of course spiritual before it came to define a people and other stuff besides but I do like the idea that baptism is a 'charis' moment - the bringing into being and making real of the gift of Grace in the life of those who come to the waters of baptism. In fact, and this took me some time as a former Pentecostal, I have come to realise that I do expect something to come of baptism when the focus of it is a child and the source of it is God!

It's about obedience and submission (now there's a couple of really popular terms for you) rather than understanding and knowing (which is a pain for the enlightenment project [AKA Reformation] guys I guess). It is indeed a gift of faith and not the diploma for our studies!

So my answer to this element is, as it was when I had the conversation: 'If we didn't do paedobaptism then we would be ignoring and denying sixteen hundred years of Church practice for four hundred years of being clever. So we do it, but we explain the Why and the What and the Who and (we fudge this a bit because who really fully understands it) the How and the When becomes the Now and the Who is 'all that Can, May - and should!

Nothing clever here - couldn't be, look where it comes from :-)

1 comment:

Graham Criddle said...

Hi Vic
Another fascinating article.

I would agree that infant baptism has been around for a long time and your references to Origen is key.

I think the Hippolytus quote is "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."
So a model for the current practice seems clear.

I was interested in what you said about Augustine so went to look him up!
It looks as though he is saying that the purpose of infant baptism is to deal with the problem of original sin derived from Adam and not related to "obtaining the kingdom of heaven".
Is that consistent with your understanding?

Not saying that's a complete position but it seems to summarise some of Augustine's argument.

Looking into this I found a fascinating quote:

"While the church was still a missionary institution in the midst of a heathen world, infant baptism was overshadowed by the baptism of adult proselytes; as, in the following periods, upon the union of church and state, the order was reversed"

Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (vol. 2; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 258.

Certainly something to reflect on with the current moves away from Christendom.