Friday, March 28, 2008

Infant Baptism II: Nazarene Practice in Historical Context

A couple of words before I proceed: First, I'm discovering that this blogging deal is not quite like writing a term paper! The venue seems to demand a bit more brevity, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of footnoting in the few blogs that I've checked out. That being said, a great place to read up on the shaping of Nazarene baptismal practice is in Stan Ingersol's article, "Christian Baptism and the Early Nazarenes: The Sources that Shaped a Pluralistic Baptismal Tradition," Wesleyan Theological Journal. vol. 25, Number 2, Fall 1990. - And now, on with the article . . .

In the "Historical Statement" of the Nazarene Manual (our Book of Discipline) it is stated that the Church of the Nazarene has ". . . taken care to retain and nurture identification with the historic church in its . . . administration of the sacraments . . ." So, we begin there, with the historic Church.

Infant baptism has been documented as being practiced and considered valid since as early as the 2nd century. Tertullian's writings at the turn of the second and third centuries are the earliest writings that we have that make explicit mention of infant baptism. Significantly, he argued against it. Equally significant, his argument was not based upon it being a "new invention," or that it was less than valid. Quit the opposite. Tertullian's arguments against infant baptism assumed that it was indeed real, valid, Christian baptism. His argument was based upon the concern that sins committed after baptism might not be forgiven. In fact, he not only argued against infant baptism, but against baptism prior to marriage (in case one might fall into sexual sin, before marriage). Tertullian's concern would logically call us all to put off baptism until near death. - Nevertheless, what we find as early as the end of the second century is clear documentation of the practice of Christian parents baptizing their infant children.

Within thirty years of Tertullian's writings, Hyppolytus in the West, and Origen in the East both identified infant baptism as the norm for Christian parents. Further, they both considered the practice to be of apostolic origin. (cf., The Water that Divides. Bridge & Phypers. Mentor P. 1998.) Of course, there is further evidence of infant baptism in the early Church. There is the testimony given by Polycarp, whose life overlapped that of the apostles, themselves. And then with the explicit writings of the early Fathers identifying infant baptism being of apostolic origin, there are the implicit writings in Scripture, itself; the "household" baptisms recorded in Scripture, along with Jesus' words to let the little children come to Him, for to such belong the Kingdom of God.

From these beginnings, the catholic (universal), orthodox Church has continually affirmed infant baptism. In fact, even today, with the popularity of rituals of infant dedication in evangelical circles (a practice that only dates to the 16th century), the vast majority of Christian parents around the planet have their children baptized. (e.g., Roman Catholics, Orthodox, those in the Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist and Reformed traditions nearly universally baptize infants or at least provide for their baptism. Only those whose roots are found in the Anabaptist-Restorationist traditions or the Pentecostal-Charismatic traditions tend to reject infant baptism.) - Those Nazarenes that baptize young children stand firmly in the broad catholic tradition.

The Church of the Nazarene is connected to the early Church through Anglicanism. It is connected to Anglicanism by way of John Wesley through Methodism and the Holiness Movement of the 19th century. While it is uncertain the exact position of the southern branch that merged to form the Church of the Nazarene, it is clear that infant baptism was, at the very least, allowed in the other two merging branches. It also seems likely that it was at least allowed in the southern branch, as well, since it too emerged from a Methodist context, and since the practiced mode of baptism in that branch was pouring.

What is certain is that, like the other churches in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, from the very beginning, the united denomination included infant baptism in its Articles of Faith on Baptism. That is not to imply that everyone in the united denomination agreed with infant baptism or practiced it (some came from Quaker or Anabaptist backgrounds), but it did mean that they were willing to be a part of a denomination that included it in its Articles of Faith. From the very beginning until this day, the Manual has included a ritual for baptizing infant children. In our earliest days, founding general superintendents (Wesley's term for bishops) Phineas Bresee and Hiram Reynolds, along with early general superintendents Roy Williams, J.B. Chapman, and John Goodwin, were sought after to baptize infants at district assemblies. Such was the prevalence of the practice.

But, alas, the tide has changed somewhat in the Church of the Nazarene. The denomination has been impacted by those who embraced the biblical doctrine and experience of entire sanctification as taught by Wesley, but who came out of an Anabaptist background. More recently Nazarenes have been hugely impacted by the dominance of the Southern Baptists in evangelical circles. Those impacts were reflected in the Manual in 1936 when a ritual for "The Dedication or Consecration of Children" appeared along side the one for infant baptism ". . . for use in those cases where the parents . . . do not care to have children baptized but simply dedicated . . ." - To this day, the Manual includes both ritual options (though the preface of the latter has been removed.) Further, with the "baptisification" of the denomination, infant dedication has become the dominate preference. In fact, it is so dominant that many Nazarenes have never seen a baby baptized and have no idea that we do baptize babies.

Still, there is something of a resurgence (perhaps still small in size) in the area of sacraments in the Church of the Nazarene. This is owed largely to the wonderful work of Rob L. Staples' book, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Beacon Hill 1991). - While I do not look for the Dedication of Infants to ever go away (it will remain a valid option within the denomination), it is my hope that the practice of our spiritual forefather, John Wesley, and that of the historic Church; that practice which I believe to be of apostolic origin, will continue to (re)gain momentum within the Church of the Nazarene so that our children might gain the benefits of the grace of God poured out through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.


Katharine said...

The stuff about Tartullian (sp? Blogger has a strange quirk. When you go to comment it takes you another page so you can't read what you are commenting on.) was quite interesting. I guess we should all just wait for deathbed conversions!

The Staples book sounds like a very interesting read!

Pastor Steven said...

Good post Todd,

As a fellow Nazarene pastor who would also consider myself Wesleyan/Anglican. I believe that the failure to stress the importance of the sacraments in the life of the believer has been one of the major shortcomings of the CotN. I wish infant baptism was the norm in the CotN not the exception for chidren of believing parents.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Steven

Brannon Hancock said...

first, thanks for contacting me via the Sanctifying Worship blog...I will certainly add a link to your site!

second, great post on infant baptism. We had our son Andrew (just turned a year old), who was born in Glasgow, Scotland where I was a graduate student, baptised at age 3 months by my professor (an Anglican priest) in the Scottish Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, where my wife and I worshiped for about 2 years. We are still/back in the COTN (never severed ties) and are big advocates of infant baptism. It did, as one might expect, though, raise some eyebrows amongst some of our Nazarene and Wesleyan family members. The FAQ was "Well, what are you going to do if he wants to be baptised again when he's older?" To which we'd reply, "Well, our goal is to teach him better than that, so he'll value his baptism and won't feel that it's necessary to reperat it." (*sigh*)

Finally, and this is not a criticism, but I wonder if you might place too much importance on Staples' book as a source for the renewed (or just new) interest in our denomination in the sacraments in general. I might just be speaking from my own experience (I've not read the book, I confess - it's on my list, though!), but I wonder if this small but growing surge of interest isn't more generally the result of our emphasis on higher education, and a growing awareness in contemporary culture of other religious traditions and practices. All that to say, I know I represent many young(er) Nazarenes who haven't been enlightened by a new kind of thinking about sacrament by a book (Staples' or otherwise) but rather have been irrevocably changed by an experience of the sacraments in a tradition that has a deeper sacramental life (Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic, etc). I'm not at all dismissing Staples' book, but I'm unconvinced that on the whole people are drawn toward a more sacramental mode of worship through intellectual argument and persuasion - my suspicion is that often praxis precedes belief. I came to value the Eucharist and desire it on a regular basis not because of an academic argument laid forth in a book, but through being captivated by the beauty of the liturgy, by my own encounter with Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, and eventually by my own determination to partake at the Lord's Table regularly, a regularity (a habit, even) that shaped and continues to shape my beliefs and convictions.

Does that make sense? anyway, some thoughts. Let's keep in touch. Incidentally, I'm the "worship pastor" (I joke that I'd rather be called "liturgist," but whatever) at First Church of the Nazarene in Xenia, OH - not sure how far apart our towns might be (we're about 20 mi. E of Dayton). You can reach me via email at brannon(dot)hancock(at)gmail(dot)com.

in peace,


Joseph said...

Great to see another fellow Nazarene in this discussion. I have made a beginning attempt in this area of our Nazarene history/theology. Check out my findings at another Nazarene blog:

Take a look and hopefully what I have done can be combined with what you are doing.

On another note, I HAVE read Staples' book, and I must agree with Brannon. It is a good introduction to the Wesleyan understanding of the Sacraments, but there are many things that can be developed further. One criticism I have with Wesleyans is a lack of concern with Wesley and the first Methodists under his leadership. Many would be blown away at reading some of the things Wesley taught and practiced.

Not only this, but we need to read (as you have pointed out) more of our 'founding fathers', ie, Bresee, McClurkan. And a look at their influences as well. One big problem with our young denomination is the fact that we haven't written much on this issue, on the sacraments in general, and infant baptism in particular. A lack of knowledge leads to ignorance, which leads to little praxis or no praxis. I see your point, Brannon, of praxis shaping belief, but I would rather look at it as a circular motion, in which each contributor (praxis and belief) factor into our theology. I'm sure you would agree. From my experience, I had seen the beauty of the Eucharist in the books and I believed in the power of the presence of Christ, but was never given the opportunity to put this belief into practice until I moved to another country. The opportunity of frequent communion confirmed and enhanced my belief in its beauty.

In other words, it works both ways :-). If any of us have the opportunity, let us practice and offer the Lord's Supper as frequent as possible.

Grace and Peace,

gloria said...

joseph - yeah, i'm down with that. i've described belief and praxis in that way before too - kind of an ebb and flow, like those relaxation machines that make the wave roll back and forth and back and forth...I think each flows into and reinforces the other, and trying to decide "which comes first" is about as fruitless as the ol' chicken/egg conundrum.
thanks. ~bh

Todd Stepp said...

Folks, I'm transferring my comments (regarding Staples' book) from my "Vacation" post to this format.

First, thank you all for your comments. Second, I understand that Staples' book is not the only source of liturgical renewal in the CotN or the holiness movement. However, as has been mentioned, his is the first and only Sacramental Theology book (that I know of) to come from the holiness tradition and the CotN.

Because it is published by Beacon Hill (i.e., Nazarene Publishing House), it has gained some reading from some who would not look outside the tradition, especially on the topic of sacraments. For these people, Staples has raised the issue of sacraments.

It is also significant that he takes a more classically Wesleyan position, i.e., a truly "sacramental" position, throughout. What that means is that for those who would not look outside the tradition, but who think of themselves as being Wesleyan, this book has opened some eyes.

Other than that, I don't have any essential disagreements with the comments. - Keep them coming!