This paper considers how controversies have been handled in the past and how such knowledge is relevant to the handling of controversies facing the present church. It is clear that there are general principles that guide church leaders in their interpretations of scripture and teaching. Of great interest to most theologians are apostolic tradition and the thinking that informed the tradition. Looking at different views on infant baptism proffered over time, and in the present, somehow, I will make clear the framework that informs the response to controversies.
Infant baptism has been a contentious issue or controversial issue dating back to the 2nd century. From what transpired, it occurs to me that a persuasion is a key tool of all theologians. In theology, it appears, the most persuasive position is one that has a basis in scripture or apostolic tradition. Those who swayed controversies had to indicate in what way their postulates were in tandem with scripture or apostolic tradition. In the present age, things have changed somehow from seeking an absolute dictate to seeking what would best serve the spiritual growth of the faithful. What is stressed seems to be the personal judgment of the faithful in the face of the facts.
Among the great authorities that are relied on to cement the case for infant baptism is Polycarp. Bishop Polycarp is known to have been personally instructed by the apostle John.
He is personally said to have been baptized as an infant by Apostle John, thus cementing the practice as an apostolic tradition. Polycarp is said to have baptized infants and instructed that parents accept the commitments of baptism on behalf of their children. Over centuries, people have relied on his teachings and practice because he is a direct successor to the first apostles of Jesus.
In the face of the controversy on infant baptism, Origen, one of the most learned theologians of his time, argued that the practice was based on an order instituted by the apostles themselves. He also argued that based on the theory of original sin, all human beings ought to be cleansed. In his arguments, one can discern a search for a scriptural basis and apostolic tradition in defense of his position on the controversial issue. Even Tertullian, who is said to have favored adult baptism, does not outrightly condemn infant baptism. He actually is said to have indicated clearly that infant baptism was apostolic. It is a practice that was instituted or encouraged by the apostles of Jesus. However, insisting on the importance of personal commitment and change of heart, he argues for postponement as the preferred option.
In modern times, the conception of baptism has changed in a big way. Unlike in the past, religious leaders favor adult baptism over infant baptism. This favor is not informed by scripture or apostolic tradition but rather by sociological factors. People seem to be disillusioned, and some traditional practices have lost a sense of meaningfulness. Morality, which was traditionally the domain of religion, has been reduced to an issue of personal choice and freedoms. Spiritual guidance, which should be the core function of religion, has been divorced from religion. Actually, many people no longer associate spirituality with religion. In the present world, it is not an exception but rather the norm to find someone claiming to be spiritual but not religious.
In the present day, pastors and ministers prefer to baptize adults who understand the faith. These are people who have been taught and agree fully, by choice, with the teachings of the church. Baptism, therefore, is viewed more as a sign of conversion or the dying to sin and rising into a new life in Christ Jesus. Although traditional teaching about original sin has not been annulled, there is a general movement towards the understanding that by dying on the cross, Jesus delivered humankind from the ties of original sin. To some extent, there is an undercurrent change in thinking about original sin. Present interpretations of the scripture look at the story of creation as a myth. Of course, the story of original sins becomes questionable. If the original sin theory is questioned, in present times, so also is the thinking that baptism is washing away of such a sin.
The big question for church leaders in our time is whether the church should be informed by society or society should inform the society. It seems that the best way is to read the signs of the times and let the scriptures and tradition inform the times. The word of God does not change, however, in a proactive way; the word has to be made relevant to the circumstances in which people live. Therefore, without disregarding apostolic tradition and scripture, church leaders in the present are informed by sociological and even cultural factors in their approach to controversies.
In a departure from the past, the church in present ways deems fit to allow the faithful to practice free will. The apostolic tradition favors infant baptism, and the scriptures may be interpreted as allowing room for infant baptism. Therefore, the parents should decide. Infant baptism is seen more like the parent’s commitment to rearing the child in a Christian way. There are parents who are truly convinced of the need to baptize their infants. Such parents are informed by tradition (infant baptism has been practiced over centuries) and scripture. The church has a role to support their faith, which is not destructive in any way. Rather, it only helps make parents more committed to raising their children in a Christian way.
However, the church encourages adult baptism because only a personal choice can sustain the commitment of baptism. In our world of today, there are too many philosophies, religious movements, theories, and forms of knowledge that an individual ought to be allowed to encounter. Moreover, any effort to deny people access to such teaching is futile in the world of today that is more of a village. Technology has made the transfer of information and movement of people very easy.
Just like in the past, present religious leaders’ work remains at the level of making clear what the apostolic tradition is and what scripture says. Religious leaders have the work of instructing the people as per the basic tenets of their faith. If in consideration of all, an individual chooses to be baptized, such a baptism is significant for the individual and the rest of the church. If on the basis of such teaching a parent should prefer early baptism for their child, the minister, pastor or priest has no basis for denying the same.