Category Archives: Church History

On C.S. Lewis & Chronological Snobbery

by Matthew Pinson

In my courses at Welch College, I often introduce my students to C. S. Lewis’s comments on “chronological snobbery.” Lewis described himself before he became a Christian, when he was still an atheist, as a chronological snob. He defined chronological snobbery as the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” [1].

Lewis believed that this was what kept so many modern intellectuals from accepting Christianity. But he urged his colleagues not to be chronological snobs, insisting:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them [2].

This is why Lewis recommended reading old books. In his introduction to Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God, Lewis comments on this. It was later printed under the title “On the Reading of Old Books” [3].

 It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them [4].

Recently I came across another quotation from Lewis on this theme. It was on the website of, of all things, an asset management firm. You can see why an asset management firm would be quoting someone about not taking just the recent past as our guide for wisdom. Asset managers and investors must look at what markets do over the long haul, not just at current trends, to advise people on how to invest their money. Listen to this incisive quote:

 “Most of all we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” [5].

Now, of course, I think Lewis would agree that this ability to “live in many times” is not limited to professional scholars. Anyone who wants to put forth the effort and “read old books,” learning from the wisdom of the Christian tradition (and the Free Will Baptist tradition in our case) will reap the benefits of which Lewis speaks.

Lewis’s lessons here are ones that we evangelicals in the early part of the twenty-first century need to learn. Many of us are quick to point out chronological snobbery in liberal theology, progressive politics, and the license with which modern liberal judges interpret the U.S. Constitution. But we also need to avoid chronological snobbery when it comes to our church lives. This is not to say that we do everything “just the way grandpa did it.” Yet it is to say that we need to avoid the trendiness and ecclesiastical fashionableness that we evangelicals seem to be so tempted by these days.

So I exhort you: resist the modern temptation to be a chronological snob. Read old books in addition to modern ones. And let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through your mind!

__________________________

[1] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), 207-08.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 200-207.

[4] Ibid.,

[5] The sermon from which this quotation comes can be found at Bradley G. Green’s excellent website: http://bradleyggreen.com/attachments/Lewis.Learning%20in%20War-Time.pdf. “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon preached in Oxford, UK, 1939.

 

A Theology of Martyrdom

by Kevin Hester

A few weeks ago, the Western world was rocked by the news of 21 Christians who were martyred at the hands of ISIS in Syria. Social media was abuzz with anger, dismay, and questions about politics and faith. However, the persecution of Christians is nothing new. Since the time of Christ, many have given their lives for their faith and this continues in many parts of the world today. Despite the efforts of some, many Western Christians remain ignorant of this reality throughout the world. But on February 16, the persecution of Christians was broadcast over airways and filled news and video feeds. The truth was apparent.

What to do about this truth was not. Most called for prayer. Some began looking for ways to offer financial assistance. A few spoke of recruiting Christian militia. Many raised questions about how a good God could allow something like this to happen. Modern Western Christians have had much to say about the presence of pain and evil in this world. Theodicies abound, but this seems different. In a review of 15 theology volumes immediately accessible on my bookshelf, the word “martyr” or “martyrdom” does not occur in the index. So it comes as no surprise that other than a few eschatological references there was little theological response.

The freedoms enjoyed by the church in the West have left us blind to the full import of significant sections of Scripture. We have come to equate persecution with social stigma, financial hardship, demands for sermons, and judicial and executive orders that legislate against conscience. I do not wish to diminish these realities or the possibility that they may be harbingers of more serious persecution to come. However, even the Christian voices that raised concerns over them seemed to approach them from the perspective of individual rights rather than biblical principles.

The church has not always been so silent. The earliest Christian communities not only experienced such persecution, but they wrote about it in an attempt to understand what God was doing in the world. Their answers were both practical and theological. In the face of real persecution there is much we can learn from them about the Christian’s relationship to this world, the cost of discipleship, and the kingdom of God.

The Church in the World

Martyrdom reminds us in the words of the old gospel song, “this world is not my home.” The early church distinguished between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men. They understood that although Christians continue to live in this world, their lives here are lived with another end in view– Christians live a heavenly life on this earthly plane. This realization lay behind everything the early church did and thought.

The early church developed an ethic of moral and philosophical separation from the prevailing culture and government. As may be seen in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, they viewed the culture as atheistic and evil. When offered an opportunity to sacrifice to Caesar and save his life, Polycarp instead responded, “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” This quotation demonstrates his philosophical separation from the world and his view of death. Rather than fearing death, Polycarp embraced it as the vehicle to his final sanctification.

Though the early church’s experience of martyrdom sometimes expressed itself in a radical division from the world that can be problematic, their sentiment condemns the way the modern Western church has comfortably cozied up to it. The Gospel of Christ is a “scandal” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) and the early church was comfortable with that. Their attitude and actions were driven by Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, “Blessed are ye when, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…(but)…woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22, 26) As the author of Hebrews says in reflecting upon martyrdom, “this world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:38).

The Cost of Discipleship

The early church believed that martyrdom was the true mark of a disciple. For them, discipleship wasn’t about small groups or catechisms (though they certainly believed in them). To be a disciple was to live like, and if necessary, to die like Christ. It was an all-encompassing endeavor. Martyrdom was the outward expression of what had already occurred in the heart. Dying to one’s self was necessary for salvation and in their day was often literally applied.

This can be seen from the very use of the term martyr. The root is the Greek word martus which literally means a “witness”. It is used in Scripture to refer to those who followed Christ and proclaimed him to be Messiah and Savior. The legal background of the term, a witness in a court of law, was applied very early to Christians persecuted for their proclamation of the Gospel and their testimony for Christ when they were “brought before governors and kings…for a testimony against them.” (Mt. 10:18) It was not lost on the early church that this prophecy of Jesus led up to one of his most famous description of discipleship: “and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Mt. 10:38-39) By the fourth century, the term “martyr” was applied only to those who had borne testimony to Christ and in so doing lost their life.

One of the earliest martyrs was Ignatius of Antioch. Early in the second century he was arrested and sent to Rome to stand trial as a Christian. On the journey he wrote a number of epistles which detail counsel to various churches and reflections on true discipleship. Throughout these letters he highlights holy living, pure doctrine, and obedience as the marks of a follower of Christ. He begs the church in Rome to do nothing to avert his martyrdom but to allow him to imitate the passion of his God. “Now, I begin to be a disciple.” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 5)

The Kingdom of God

The early church understood that the demands of discipleship, proclamation and persecution, went hand-in-hand. Jesus has prophesied that this would be the case (Jn. 15:20), as had Paul (2 Tim. 3:12), and the book of Acts consistently repeated this thematic coupling. They believed that the truth would be opposed by Satan and by hard-hearted humanity. But they were also sure that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel’s assault (Mt. 16:18).

The early church believed that the church would advance under the sovereignty of God. God was sovereign even in the midst of trial and gladly granted crowns to those who suffered (Rev. 2:10). Persecution and martyrdom were eschatologically understood as integral in bringing into full flower the inaugurated kingdom. As Tertullian explained,

“But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more” (Tertullian, Apology, 50).

Until Constantine’s Edict of Milan, the church embraced martyrdom as a mark of a true disciple and as evidence of the truth of Christianity and its advance. Such sentiment died a hard death, its memory fading into monasticism. As the church came to be identified with the Empire, the theology of martyrdom gave way to state sponsored religion. As the states of the world move further and further away from religion perhaps the need for a theology of martyrdom is once again on the horizon.

A Reflection on “Falling Away” in the Patristic Period

by Jackson Watts

My first educational stop during my graduate studies was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a distinguished Southern Baptist school in the beautiful town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Southeastern (hereafter SEBTS) has a number of excellent scholars in several fields, and so I appreciated my three years there immensely. However, given my Free Will Baptist background, I expected to encounter some differences.

The two major doctrinal distinctions that most observe between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists are (1) Disagreement over whether feet washing should be considered an ordinance; and (2) Disagreement over whether genuine believers can fall away, that is apostatize, and thus forfeit their salvation.

Free Will Baptists answer affirmatively on the first of these, understanding feet washing (a) to have been ordained for perpetual practice by Christ himself, (b) to be a symbol of the Gospel truth of sanctification, and (c) to inculcate humility and remind the believer of the virtue of humility as part of their sanctification. Commission Chairman Matt Pinson called attention to this topic in a recent blog post.

On the question of perseverance and apostasy, Free Will Baptists affirm not only the possibility of falling away, but the actual incidence of believers making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). We call to mind not only the many severe warnings found in Hebrews and Second Peter, but warnings from Jesus himself concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:29). Though most would describe apostasy as a process of falling into unbelief, it is still attached to decisive, willful disobedience.

During my experience at SEBTS, I expected to encounter dissent on these two doctrines. Being a Free Will Baptist swimming in Southern Baptist currents, situations would arise when a classmate unfamiliar with my tradition would raise the question, “So what’s the difference between Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?” Though my explanations often garnered surprise or confusion (and sometimes genuine interest), I often marveled at those who learned of my position on the doctrine of perseverance, and responded in downright shock that I could hold such a view.

Learning with Other Brethren

Aside from learning to have charitable and useful “intra-mural theological debates,” that is, debates within the Christian family, I took away two key reflections from these experiences. First, I learned how deeply ingrained mainstream views like “once saved, always saved” and “eternal security” are in the Southern Baptist religious imagination. While there are some unhealthy aspects to this, in another sense our view on perseverance ought to shape our piety! All doctrines have real-world import, even if sometimes that import isn’t immediately evident, or if the spiritual consequences of certain doctrines (beliefs or practices) aren’t essential to salvation itself.

One could believe, for instance, that the office of pastor and bishop are two different roles, or that the body of Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, and still be a Christian. Of course, I would say they are incorrect on both of these points. But again, this is what we might think of as an “intra-mural” debate that Christians have had through the ages. Our views truly matter, and no doubt most of our Southern Baptist brethren believe “eternal security” occupies a lofty place in their doctrinal hierarchy.

The second reflection I took from these conversations is just as interesting as the first, and is an angle of the perseverance subject that I believe merits much more scholarly attention: beliefs about perseverance in early and even pre-Reformation Christianity.

One fact that seemed to be a great loss on many of the young seminarians that surrounded me at SEBTS was the belief that a believer could genuinely forfeit, leave, or “lose” (to use popular, though misleading jargon) their salvation has been prevalent in Christian thought through the ages.[1] As Kevin Hester noted in his recent post, “I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history.” Among these contributions are a number of insights into the “perseverance debate.”

Here, I’d like to simply contribute some increased awareness in the evangelical Christian community about how perseverance was characterized in early Christian thought.

Insight from a Forgotten Voice

I will be the first to say that Syriac Christianity is not my area of specialty. Yet my preparation for a sermon from 2 Corinthians 6 recently brought me into dialogue with a significant Syriac writer from the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. named Philoxenus of Mabbug.

I came across Philoxenus in the 1-2 Corinthians volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS). The ACCS is a wonderful set of commentaries that have mined riches from numerous early Christian figures and sources to allow the best of the exegetical tradition to inform contemporary biblical interpretation and faith. Gerald Bray was the main editor of this particular volume, and he cites some of the comments from Philoxenus on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Here is an excerpt of the verse: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers….for what fellowship does Christ have with Satan, or the believer with the unbelievers, or God’s temple with that of demons?”

Commenting on this verse in “On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian bishop and theologian writes:

“It is the same now with us who are baptized: neither the wetness of the water in which we are baptized nor the oiliness of the oil with which we are anointed remain with us after our death. But the Holy Spirit, who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water, does remain with us, both in this life and after our death. For he is our true baptism, and for this reason we remain always baptized, for the Holy Spirit is within us always, and no sin can strip us of our baptism–neither adultery, nor theft, nor fornication, nor false testimony nor any action of this sort: only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”[2]

While Philoxenus’ connection with Syriac Orthodox Christianity is hinted upon in these opening lines, we should keep in mind that regardless of one’s specific anthropology, or one’s views about the proper subjects of baptism, the baptized person in view in this passage is a true believer because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. So while we would contend with many early patristic brethren over their espousal of infant baptism, the person in view in this passage is a true believer.

Of that true believer, Philoxenus argues, no sin he may commit is able to strip from him the presence of God’s Spirit. Indeed, we would say the Holy Spirit powerfully convicts believers who may commit such sins. Yet this ancient writer also qualifies his claim with the very exception that many Free Will Baptists would also supply in defense of their view of conditional perseverance: “only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”

Some Qualifications

I cannot say for sure that Philoxenus has blasphemy of the Holy Spirit specifically in mind here, but it sure sounds like it. Moreover, his assertion of the Holy Spirit’s initial presence in the individual and then later departure also seems to support the notion that “falling away” isn’t merely backsliding, or always the evidence that one was never really as a Christian to  begin with. These are just a few of the main aspects of the overall perseverance topic that often arise in discussion.

I should add one another qualification about this figure from early Christianity. Philoxenus is often overlooked because there has been reluctance among Christians who espouse Chalcedonian Christology to engage him since he belongs in the theological camp known as miaphysitism. Though it is a proto-orthodox position, it arises from the basic view found in monophysitism. Historical context aside, most modern Christians would see this as a serious Christological error that doesn’t line up adequately to the definition offered at Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Even so, despite the cautious reading we must exercise with early Christian sources—and any Christian sources at that—I think we can learn to chew up the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to gleaning doctrinal insights from premodern Christian exegesis.

____________________

[1] It is important to acknowledge that one reason why beliefs on this topic during this period are often overlooked is because they are sometimes attached to problematic assumptions and views on the efficacy of baptism, penance, and post-baptismal sins. Still, some untangling of these issues are worth doing for the sake of uncovering truly consensual Christian beliefs.

[2] Cited on page 261 of 1-2 Corinthians in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Volume edited by Gerald Bray (IVP Academic, 2006).

What’s a Baptist to Do with Tradition?

by Kevin Hester

I can’t remember when I heard the pithy quote, “tradition is a good guide but a poor taskmaster.” Subsequent attempts to find the derivation of the quote have been fruitless. However, the quote seems to capture the general, Baptist approach to anything viewed as established practice.

When my Baptist friends use the word “tradition” in the context of a discussion about the church, many of them use the term incorrectly. Either, they view it as a mostly negative way of referencing the general approach to method and practice in the context of corporate worship or as a mostly positive signifier of Baptist, Protestant ideals. In the first sense, “tradition” really only means the complex set of characteristics of low-church Protestant worship that developed in America after the Second Great Awakening. This “tradition” is, therefore, something in need of correcting and modernizing. Tradition in this light has come to signify a particularly conservative position in the ongoing worship debates of modern Evangelicalism. In the second sense, tradition is used more correctly but dates no further back than the 16th century (and often in reality no further than the late 19th century). They give lip service to Luther, Calvin, and the Puritan Divines, but tradition in their sense is always Western, European, and Protestant.

As a historical theologian who specializes in the late patristic and early medieval period, I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history. I have come to understand that this is largely the result of ignorance of church history before the Protestant Reformation and a misunderstanding of the role of tradition. While I can do little in this short space to rectify the former, I can at least speak to the latter.

Tradition and Traditionalism

Part of the problem is a confusion of tradition with traditionalism. As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

Traditionalism is the unthinking preservation of habit, just because. Tradition is the passing down of truth in contextually meaningful ways. Traditionalism is trapped in the amber of memory. While tradition isn’t timeless, it seeks to preserve meaningful truths in ways that renew them for each subsequent generation. Where traditionalism divides us from the culture, tradition clasps hands with the past and the future. Tradition forms and informs our faith as it flows out of the corporate body’s experience of faith in the application of Scripture to its historical context. Robust biblical exegesis must be coupled with a critical awareness of the past.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

What many of my Baptist peers have missed is that between the ascension of Christ and the Protestant Reformation, a great number of believers have worked to know Christ and to make him known. They lived out a biblical faith in the midst of an often inimical culture and sometimes in the face of corruption and misinterpretation of their church. A real emphasis on tradition should break through the oligarchy of the sixteenth century and give voice to all members of the faithful cloud of witnesses.

If tradition is to be understood this broadly, it is important for us to understand just what that tradition entails. Within the Christian church, tradition typically has reference to two primary areas: liturgy and doctrine. Liturgy, or corporate worship, is an important cultural marker of the church and has the capacity to unite the modern church with the church throughout the ages. However, liturgy is also culturally shaped and intricately connected with significant theological distinctives that have come to be expressed in corporate worship. Because of this, a holistic embracing of liturgical tradition in Baptist circles is necessarily limited to its Puritan and Protestant forbearers and what can be gathered from the practices of the earliest Christian communities. Such focus must always account for Protestant and Baptist emphases such as the regulative principle and the priesthood of all believers.

However, Baptists must understand that theological tradition is definitional in nature. The rule or deposit of the faith is the church’s expression of basic biblical truth in creedal form. Such teachings were early identified with the Gospel itself and used to combat early heresies before being reified in the ecumenical creeds. This is not to say that the creeds of early Christianity are normative or prescriptive in the same way that Scripture is normative. But it is to say that Baptists should pay careful and close attention to the Vincentian canon (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all). Such an understanding is a helpful, minimalist expression of the dogma of the Christian church and allows us to more easily differentiate between true and false tradition.

Tradition and Scripture

John Henry Cardinal Newman presented the Roman Catholic perspective of tradition in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845). In this work he argues that the Holy Spirit works within the church broadly to guide development in doctrine and practice. Such guidance when broadly recognized by the church body becomes normative as a secondary means of inspiration. This tradition clearly lies outside the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.

What Newman misses is that development can sometimes lead to discontinuity. Even well-meaning Christians sometimes fall into error and Scripture cautions us to always weigh our thinking with its teachings (I Th. 5:21, Rev. 2:2). After all, not all heretics intended to be evil schismatics. But if church history teaches us anything, it teaches us that redeemed humanity continues to struggle with the effects of depravity even, if not especially, upon the mind. This is why the Protestant church, though committed to tradition, must always be ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church always to be reformed).

Newman’s other assertion is that the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura means that each individual exercises only “private judgment” in his or her interpretation and exercised undue privilege over the text. His slippery-slope accusation is that without the magisterium of the church there is no norm to the interpretation of Scripture and “each one does what is right in his own eyes.”

However, Protestants have always taught not only the perspicuity of Scripture but also that scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture is its own interpreter). The norm is then the Holy Spirit working through His own words in Scripture. Tradition exercises a role in the interpretive process which is why our theology takes place in a long line of orthodox interpretation as presented in the creeds and in living faith communities that are committed to the inspiration of scripture and its sufficiency to answer the needs of the church in all ages. Scripture is the anchor of tradition. Where development occurs it takes place only in light of the biblical norm.

Baptists, therefore, must navigate between two extremes. We must seek a middle way between jettisoning all tradition on the one hand and treating it as inspired on the other. We must know our own history. We must give a voice and vote to all the Christians of the past. We must read them with a critical eye, but should bend the same criticism toward our own theology. We owe it to the Tradition to be always reforming, but to be always reformed only by Scripture.

Was Infant Baptism Practiced in Early Christianity?

by Matthew Pinson

Traditionally, advocates of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) say that its practice dates back to the apostles. Yet there is no proof for this assertion. No clear evidence for infant baptism exists before the third century. Even Augustine’s statement that infant baptism was a “firmly established custom” in the church is off the mark. As late as the time of Augustine’s writings in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, many church fathers either didn’t practice infant baptism or did not themselves receive baptism until they were adults. It was not until after Augustine’s death in the fifth century that one could call infant baptism a firmly established custom.

In understanding this question, we need to talk about two things: First, we must discuss what caused infant baptism to take root in the third century and become general practice by the fifth century. Second, we must establish that infant baptism was not the practice of the early Christians from the time of the apostles to the third century.

Yet before we do these two things, we must take note of the main idea that seems to be driving the paedobaptist argument from history: If infant baptism was a late addition, then why was there no controversy over its introduction into the churches? The answer to this question is twofold: First, there is no clear evidence of infant baptism before the third century, and the paedobaptist must face this. No amount of discussion about why infant baptism came on the scene with little recorded opposition obscures the fact that believer’s baptism is the clear practice before the third century—and infant baptism is not. Second, Tertullian did speak out against the introduction of infant baptism, which we will discuss in a moment.

Now, why was infant baptism introduced in the third century? There are two things here that we must discuss: first, the catechumen system, and the second, the question of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration. The catechumen system was in place as early as the second century. In this system, people would undergo a period of instruction after conversion and before baptism. The early church fathers placed so much emphasis on one’s being instructed in the faith prior to baptism that most converts underwent months or years of catechetical instruction before their baptism.

Many of the best-known church fathers underwent such catechesis and didn’t receive baptism until adulthood, even though they were born to Christian parents. These included, among others, such men as Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine himself [1]. If infant baptism had been a custom since the time of the apostles, surely these men would have been baptized before adulthood. Yet these men were products of the catechumen system. They were catachumens who underwent instruction in the faith for many years before being admitted to baptism.

So, given this background, how did infant baptism come to displace the catechumen system? It is simply this: People began to believe the erroneous doctrines of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration, and soon they became widespread in the churches.

Now we must deal with the question, what proof is there that, before the third century, baptism was administered only to believers and not to infants? [2] The best place to start is in early second-century Christianity. Every reference to baptism we find in second-century Christianity reflects confession of faith as an essential qualification for baptism [3].

The earliest and best second-century source on believer’s baptism is the Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” A.D. 100-110). This document goes into more detail on baptism than any other second-century treatment. The Didache not only establishes moral qualifications for the one who is about to undergo baptism but also requires the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two [4].

Paul K. Jewett asks, “How shall we account for the omission of all reference to infant baptism in this primitive manual of proper baptismal usage? It is hard to imagine such an omission occurring under the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or even Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational auspices. . . . Is it not, then, highly implausible that the Didache was produced by a community of early Paedobaptists who just happened to say nothing about infant baptism?” [5].

All other references to baptism in the second century yield the same results. Paedobaptists have long tried to misconstrue Justin Martyr as teaching infant baptism when he speaks of “many men and women, sixty or seventy years old, who from children were disciples of Christ” [6]. Yet no Baptist would deny that if a child is mature enough to be a “disciple of Christ”—and is one—then he can be admitted to baptism. Far from supporting infant baptism, Justin’s comment supports disciple’s baptism.

Many paedobaptist authors, such as Joachim Jeremias, have said that Irenaeus believed in infant baptism, because of a statement he made (c. A.D. 180) that through Christ people of all ages are reborn, including infants [7]. However, as Everett Ferguson argues, “Before rushing to accept a reference to infant baptism here, we should be cautious.” Ferguson argues that Irenaeus uses the term “reborn” (renascor) for “Jesus’ work of renewal and rejuvenation effected by his birth and resurrection without any reference to baptism. . . . The coming of Jesus brought a second beginning to the whole human race. He sanctified every age of life. Accepting his renovation by being baptized is another matter and falls outside the purview of this passage” [8]. This is the standard baptistic interpretation articulated by authors such as Hezekiah Harvey and Paul King Jewett. Yet this view of Irenaeus is also shared by paedobaptists such as Kurt Aland [9].

As we move into the early third century, we find Tertullian, who wrote the first full treatise on baptism, De baptismo. Strongly favoring the catechumen system, he believed that people should delay baptism until they have been instructed in the faith for a long while: “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. . . . The Lord indeed says: ‘Forbid them not to come unto me,’ Matt. xix. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins?” [10] This passage shows that Tertullian is against infant baptism precisely because he is for believer’s baptism.

Baptists, of course, agree that infant baptism took root in the third century. Such church fathers as Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine approved of it. Yet Origen was defensive about it, saying that infant baptism “is a thing causing frequent inquires among the brethren” [11]. This statement works against the paedobaptists’ argument that no one protested the gradual introduction of infant baptism.

There is no direct evidence for the assertion that infant baptism was practiced in the first two centuries of the Christian church. On the contrary, all the evidence establishes believers as the only fit subjects for baptism prior to the third century. When placed alongside the New Testament data on baptism, this demonstrates that apostolic baptism was for believers only.

________________________

[1] Hezekiah Harvey, The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1879; repr. Rochester, NY: Backus, 1982), 211; A. W. Argyle, “Baptism in the Early Christian Centuries,” in Christian Baptism, ed . A. Gilmore (Chicago: Judson, 1959), 187, 202-03, 208.

[2] For one of the best succinct treatments of the early Christian view of baptism, see Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). 13-43. See also Steven McKinion, “Baptism in the Patristic Writings,” in Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1006), 163-88.

[3] See, e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 120-130), which advocates the baptism of believers only: “We go down into the water full of sins and foulness and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit” (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Apostolic Fathers, I, 121). Obviously, infants are unable to exhibit this type of behavior. Another example is found in the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the mid-second century. Hermas makes repentance a condition of baptism (Jewett, 40).

[4] “But before baptism, let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any also that are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before” Didache, 7.1).

[5] Jewett, 40-41.

[6] Quoted in Harvey, 202.

[7] Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 73.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 308.

[9] Harvey, 203-04; Jewett, 25-27; Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 58-59. For an early Baptist treatment of Irenaeus similar to this one, see John Gill, Infant Baptism a Part and Pillar of Popery (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 22-23. See also “The Baptismal Question in the Light of Scripture and Church History,” Freewill Baptist Quarterly 26 (1859), which asks, “If infant baptism was practiced by Christ and his apostles, and in the first and second centuries, is it not passing strange that our Pedobaptist friends can find no proof thereof but this passage of Irenaeus,which, after all, says not a word about baptism?” (128).

[10] Tertullian, Tertullian’s Treatises: Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism, trans. Alexander Souter (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 69.

[11] Quoted in Jewett, 30.