Thursday, January 22, 2015

Infant Baptism II: Nazarene Practice in Historical Context

*** A recent Facebook discussion among pastors on my (Nazarene) district, has prompted me to re-post a four part series on Infant Baptism.  This series was originally posted in 2008.***

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.

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