Editor’s note: As with all of our “Opinion” pieces, the following guest post does not represent an official position of Anglican Compass. With the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Anglican Compass believes that “the Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained. in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ” (Article 27, “On Baptism”). Furthermore, as the ACNA Catechism states, we believe that it is appropriate to baptize infants “Because it is a sign of God’s promise that they are embraced in the covenant community of Christ’s Church. Those who in faith and repentance present infants to be baptized vow to raise them in the knowledge and fear of the Lord, with the expectation that they will one day profess full Christian faith as their own” (Q 129). Click here to read all of our posts about infant baptism.
Nevertheless, we publish the following argument for “dual-practice baptism” from a credobaptist (a Baptist professor in Spain) in the hopes of generating fruitful discussion about how Anglican paedobaptists should relate to their brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with them on the question of infant baptism. For more on “dual-practice baptism,” see Michael F. Bird, “Dual-practice baptism,” pages 873–75 in Evangelical Theology [2nd ed.]; Anthony N.S. Lane, “Dual-Practice Baptism View,” pages 139–92, including the responses, in Baptism: Three Views; and “IV. Baptismal Practice. A. Baptism of Believers and Infants,” paragraphs 11–13 in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.
For some time now, large numbers of credobaptists have found themselves interested in the more historical and liturgical denominations —especially Anglicanism—, and as they become more aware of the “Great Tradition” of Christ’s Church, they see the many benefits of identifying themselves with a denomination that is self-consciously one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Ecumenical dialogue has led both sides to embrace each other on a whole host of issues, but the major hang-up to unity continues to be the issue of believer’s vs. infant baptism. Both sides are convinced they are right, and both can justify their position on exegetical and historical grounds.
As is well-known, the issue of baptism, specifically believer’s vs. infant baptism, has divided Christian denominations since the Reformation. For the first few hundred years, credobaptists were a relatively small group of Protestants and did not pose a serious “threat” to the paedobaptist position. However, with the rise of the modern missions movement, believer’s baptism has spread throughout the world, and now enjoys tens —perhaps hundreds— of millions of adherents. What is more, those holding to believer’s baptism are becoming more educated and can boast of some of the finest scholars and institutions within the Christian world.
My intention in this article is not to argue for either believer’s or infant baptism, but rather to argue that the issue should not divide the two sides any longer, and that it especially should not divide Anglicans and Baptists. Some Anglicans may object that if there is any division, it does not come from their end: after all, they already baptize both infants and adults. However, the official Anglican position is that infants of believing parents should be baptized, whereas the official Baptist position is that infants of believing parents should not be. Thus the rub.
There are three points I would like to make. First, Anglicans have taken a “broad church” approach on many other topics, and thus could —and perhaps should— take a similar approach to believer’s baptism. Second, the Patristic era shows evidence of both believer’s and infant baptism, and thus the Anglican church should take a similar approach to the issue. Third, there are several notable examples of credo- and paedobaptists accommodating each other, and this should give us hope that it can happen in the future.
(For more on infant baptism, read “Infant Baptism: Why Do Anglicans Baptize Babies?“)
1. Anglicans and the “broad church” approach
Time and time again, Anglicanism has taken a “broad church” approach to diverse theological viewpoints. In the 16th century, “Anglicanism” (a bit of an anachronism, I admit) took a via media approach to the Reformation. There is scholarly debate whether it was a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, or between Wittenburg and Geneva, but the point is that it provided a “big tent” for people of diverse theological persuasions. In the 19th century, the Anglican Church found room to accommodate both low-church Evangelicals and high-church Anglo-Catholics. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Anglicanism has found a way to accommodate diverse opinions on a whole host of ideas, such as the charismatic movement, the new perspective on Paul, and the ordination of women.
What I hope to illustrate with these examples is that time and time again, Anglicanism has decided to be a big tent for Christians of different viewpoints, and even of very important matters such as liturgy, sacramentalism, spiritual gifts, justification, and church leadership. Anglicanism has done an admiral job of working out the dictum: “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” The Anglican church has decided that the issues cited above are non-essentials. The key question is: Is infant baptism an essential, or a non-essential? I would argue that it is non-essential, in large part due to the historical evidence presented in the next section.
(For more on infant baptism, read “Getting Over the Hurdle of Infant Baptism: An Atonement Argument.”)
2. Credobaptism in the Early Church
For the sake of space, I will not marshal out the evidence in favor of infant baptism in the early Church. All sides know that it was widely practiced, and it is the official position of the Anglican church for infants of believing parents. What I would like to do, however, is provide some examples of believer’s baptism in the early Church, and thus perhaps introduce readers to some evidence they might not know. Beginning with Balthasar Hubmaier and culminating in the magisterial work of Everett Ferguson, credobaptists have made many attempts to justify their practice based on early Church practice. Below are some of the most important examples.
- The Didache is the earliest church order that we have, dated to c. AD 100. While it provides a detailed account of believer’s baptism —including pre-baptismal catechism and fasting, the rite itself, and post-baptismal Eucharist instructions—, it is silent on the issue of infant baptism. Granted, this is an argument from silence, but silence can be important at times. (For those interested, the first church order that explicitly commands infant baptism is the late 4th cent. work Apostolic Constitutions [6.15.7].)
- Some Church Fathers state (sometimes repeatedly) that faith and repentance are necessary precursors to baptism, thereby implying believer’s baptism. This is true, for example, of Justin Martyr (Apology 1:61; 65) and Clement of Alexandria (Instructor 184.108.40.206; Miscellanies 220.127.116.11; 18.104.22.168).
- Tertullian’s work On Baptism is interesting: on the one hand, he provides the first indisputable evidence that paedobaptism was being practiced within the Church; on the other hand, he argues against the practice (cf. §18). He contends that baptism should only be given “to him who asks” (cf. Mt 5:42), and that if we do not entrust earthly property to minors, then we should not entrust heavenly affairs to them either.
- Burial inscriptions from the first Christian centuries demonstrate that many children of Christian parents were not baptized as infants, but rather later in life. When they were baptized as infants or small children, there is a frequent connection between baptism and premature death (called “emergency baptism”). Summarizing some four pages of inscriptions and discussion, Everett Ferguson concludes: “Reading the inscriptions pertaining to baptism leaves certain definite impressions: (1) there was no common age at which baptism was administered; (2) there is no evidence that infants were routinely baptized shortly after birth, and indeed the evidence shows the opposite; and (3) the correlation between the time of baptism and the time of death, where these can be determined from the inscriptions, shows the prevalence of emergency baptism, and from the available inscriptional evidence only that practice can be demonstrated in regard to children”.
- While he was bishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus delivered his 40th Oration, in which he argued that, aside from emergency baptisms, baptism should not be administered to children until they are about three years old, so that they could understand the basics of the Christian faith. His language and argumentation make one think that non-emergency infant baptism was somewhat of a novelty, rather than a long-established practice.
- As an alternative to infant baptism, some parents enrolled their children as catechumens. Then, after several months (or even years) of instruction, they would be baptized. This, in part, explains the phenomenon of the famous “catechetical lectures” by pastors such as Cyril of Jerusalem. This is also connected to the phenomenon of “delayed baptism”: the early Church believed that baptism washed away all previous sin, and thus did not want to receive it too quickly, lest they fall into sin afterwards. Parents were well aware of the passions of youth, and thus did not want to baptize their children until after they had matured beyond this phase of life.
- Many Christian leaders of the fourth century —many of them born and raised in Christian homes— were not baptized as infants, but rather as adults. The following is a list of names of people in this category: Ephraem the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus (and his father Gregory, sister Gorgonia, and brother Caesarius), John Chrysostom, Ambrose (and his brother Satyrus), Jerome (and his friends Heliodorus and Rufius), Rufinus, Paulinus of Nola (and his brother), Augustine, and Rufinus of Aquileia. Granted, this may have been due to the phenomenon known as “delayed baptism”, but the effect was the same: it was common for Christian parents to not baptize their infants.
Again, my point here is not to make the case for believer’s baptism to the exclusion of infant baptism, but rather to demonstrate that both were practiced in the early Church, and thus both have a right to claim historical precedent for their position. If this is the case, then the Church that gave us our great ecumenical creeds was the same one that allowed believer’s and infant baptism to exist side-by-side without causing any division.
(For more on infant baptism, here’s why you should read Scot McKnight’s book about infant baptism, “It Takes a Church to Baptize.”)
3. Mutual Accommodation and Blurring the Lines
Finally, I would like to provide some historical examples of credo- and paedobaptists who have accommodated each other, and of theologians who have “blurred the lines” between the two positions. My hope here is to demonstrate that this issue has not always been such a divisive one, and therefore need not be one today.
- Balthasar Hubmaier, the only Anabaptist with his doctorate, would perform emergency baptisms for babies. In his letter to Oecolampad (dated 16 Jan, 1525), after describing what today we might call a “baby dedication” (which he substituted for infant baptism), he writes: “If there are parents of a sick child at a given time, who most earnestly wish the child to be baptized, I baptize it. In this matter, I take on sickness myself along with the sickly little ones, but only for a time, until better instructed.”
- John Tombes, although an ordained Anglican minister in the 17th century, nevertheless held to the credobaptist —or at least “antipaedobaptist”— position. Nevertheless, because of his ecclesiastical convictions, he was unwilling to leave the Anglican communion.
- John Bunyan, author of the famous Pilgrim’s Progress and countless other spiritual classics, wrote a book in 1672 in which he argued that Baptist churches 1) should accept into membership those who had been baptized as infants, and 2) could share the Lord’s Supper with those who had been baptized as infants. The full title of his work explains its contents quite well: A Confession of My Faith, and a Reason of My Practice: Or, With Who, and Who Not, I Can Hold Church Fellowship, or the Communion of Saints. Shewing by diverse arguments, that though I dare not communicate with the openly profane, yet I can with those visible saints that differ about water baptism. Wherein is also discoursed whether that be the entering ordinance into fellowship, or no”.
- Karl Barth argued against infant baptism and in favor of believer’s baptism on two distinct occasions: his first attempt is found in his The Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism (1948), and his second is found in the unfinished section of his Church Dogmatics IV/4 (1967). The fact that these two works were published some 20 years apart, and during the latter part of his life, demonstrates that this posture reflects the mature, theological reflection of Barth.
- In 1982, the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order published the now-famous Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. As an important sidenote, it is significant that BEM leans toward a credobaptist interpretation of the New Testament documents: “While the possibility that infant baptism was also practised in the apostolic age cannot be excluded, baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents” (“Baptism”, §11). More pertinent to the current discussion is the section entitled “Towards Mutual Recognition of Baptism”. The advice given here is not for credo- and paedobaptists to remain isolated from each other, but rather “Wherever possible, mutual recognition should be expressed explicitly by the churches” (§15).
(As mentioned in the editor’s note above, this “mutual accommodation” that Messmer speaks of is sometimes known as “dual-practice baptism.” For more on this, see Michael F. Bird, “Dual-practice baptism,” pages 873–75 in Evangelical Theology [2nd ed.]; Anthony N.S. Lane, “Dual-Practice Baptism View,” pages 139–92, including the responses, in Baptism: Three Views; and “IV. Baptismal Practice. A. Baptism of Believers and Infants,” paragraphs 11–13 in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.)
The purpose of this article has been quite limited. I have not tried to talk about all of the debates related to baptism (ordinance vs. sacrament, single vs. triune immersion, etc.), nor have I attempted to argue in favor of one position of one of these points (believer’s vs. infant baptism). Rather, I have tried to make the case that the issue of believer’s vs. infant baptism should not be one that separates Anglicans from Baptists. Anglicanism is a broad tent that includes a diversity of opinion on other important topics; why not also on baptism? Believer’s baptism was practiced (and defended!) in the early Church; why can it not be practiced (and defended) within the Anglican communion? Since the Reformation, influential Christians and ecumenical documents have “blurred the lines” between believer’s and infant baptism; why should the Anglican communion continue to insist on only one interpretation?