“Father Paul,” a gracEmail subscriber and Roman Catholic priest from Pennsylvania, tells me I am confused concerning infant baptism. Even if it is not explicitly found in the New Testament, he explains, it is “a precious apostolic tradition,” part of the oral teaching which the Apostle Paul equated in authority with apostolic writings (2 Thes. 2:15). Augustine (5th century), Origen (3rd century) and Irenaeus (2nd century) all attest to the practice, and Polycarp (born 1st century) might have been baptized as a baby. “I hope you can now respect the Catholic view,” Father Paul admonishes. “It is apostolic.”
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Indeed the church fathers make plain that infant baptism began as early as the second century after Christ. That is 200 years sooner than I previously suggested, and I am happy to make the correction. As a Protestant and an evangelical, however, I still consider it 200 years too late. Father Paul claims that infant baptism rests on apostolic authority, but the first person I can find who made that claim was Origen of Alexandria in the third century.
The “apostolic tradition” which the Apostle Paul commends is the core of Christian truth handed down by the Apostles themselves (1 Cor. 15:1-4; 1 John 1:1-4; Jude 3). Not everything handed down from ancient times is authoritative, however, as Jesus had also to remind the Jews (Matt. 5). I know no scriptural or historical reason to believe that the Apostles passed on their unique authority to a chain of successors — although I am personally awed by the historical continuity which those churches with “apostolic” bishops do represent. There is something to be said for deep roots.
One primary reason for collecting and preserving various writings into the Bible was to provide a permanent standard, recognized as apostolic in authority, by which teaching could be measured. We therefore speak of the “canon” or “rule” of Scripture — it is a measuring stick for testing oral tradition, as well as all dreams, visions, revelations and prophecies claimed to be divine in origin.
I have no difficulty acknowledging the tradition of the universal church as one basis of authority — so long as it remains under Scripture and subject to testing by it. You need not worry that I lack respect for Catholic views. I appreciate full well the heritage and gifts of the undivided Church of the first several centuries — including the Apostles Creed, the eucharistic liturgy, and the Bible itself.