Based on discussion in the comments of the most recent edition of Nick’s discussion of baptism with me, I thought it would be worthwhile to clarify what exactly I take the role of the Church Fathers to be in understanding what the New Testament teaches about baptism.
In beginning the first non-introductory post in the series with a discussion about the early Church Fathers, I did not mean to suggest that they are more important than (or even on a par with) the New Testament; put simply, I did not mean to suggest that they are, in and of themselves, authoritative in any way. When it comes to baptism, the New Testament, not the Church Fathers, is the authority.
Why, then, did I begin the debate with a discussion about the Church Fathers? My primary reasons were twofold:
1. My beliefs about baptism separate me from the vast majority of Christendom. Hundreds of millions of people – many of whom self-identify as Evangelicals or non-denominational Christians – either consider baptism to be a merely symbolic ritual or do not even practice baptism at all. Most of the other hundreds of millions of Christians practice infant baptism. Those of us who (like me) believe that baptism is for believers (i.e., not infants) and is for the forgiveness of sins are incredibly outnumbered.
Thus, it is easy for someone from a typical Evangelical background to hear about my opinions regarding baptism and dismiss it as a hopeless minority view. After all, fifty million (or more) Evangelicals can’t be wrong.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the earliest Christians near-unanimously agreed with me that baptism was more than an external, symbolic gesture. And keeping this in mind will (I hope) mitigate our modern prejudices as we seek the truth about baptism.
2. Nick and I agree that the New Testament is the relevant authority for our discussion; what we disagree about is what this authority actually tells us. And, in attempting to understand what the New Testament says about baptism, I think the Church Fathers are a useful – and oft-overlooked – resource.
Suppose that a friend of mine and I both believe that Jack Bauer is the Son of God, and that we should do whatever he says. We each read The Book of Bauer religiously (literally) to learn more about what Jack’s Word tells us to do.
At some point, my friend and I come to a somewhat difficult passage in The Book of Bauer and disagree about how to interpret it properly. My friend believes that Jack teaches x, while I believe that Jack teaches not-x.
Suppose that my friend and I subsequently discover that all the historical evidence indicates that Jack’s earliest followers – removed from him only by fifty to one hundred years – all believed that Jack taught x. There is more, of course, to be said about what Jack actually taught – but, all else being equal, the unanimity of Jack’s earliest followers about x gives us very good reason to believe that Jack taught x.
I believe that the situation with baptism is analogous. I do not think that the Church Fathers were infallible by any stretch of the imagination. However, as a matter of history, I think that the universal assent of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings – some of which (such as the Epistle of Barnabas) may have been written before certain parts of the New Testament itself – about baptism should give us pause.
As a general historical rule, I think we can say the following about change in doctrine (whether the doctrine be Christian, Muslim, Marxist, or Aristotelian):
a) It is more likely to occur gradually, over a long period of time.
b) It is more likely to be accepted only by parts of the community in question, not by the whole community..
c) It is more likely to occur at the periphery of the doctrine, not at the center.
If Nick is right about baptism, however, then we witness in the early Church a doctrinal shift that appears to shatter all these historical norms – a doctrinal shift that was (if he is right) abrupt (taking place within decades) and universal, concerning an elementary teaching of the Christian faith (Hebrews 6.1-2).
These characteristics of the alleged doctrinal shift lead me to believe that there was not, in fact, any such doctrinal shift, and that Nick is wrong to attribute any systematic error regarding baptism to the Church Fathers.
Of course, the Church Fathers may have been wrong about baptism, so I intend to show that my beliefs about baptism are ultimately rooted, not in them, but in the New Testament. That, however, will have to wait until Monday.