Origen and Infant Baptism

Origen is one of the more fascinating figures from the Patristic period. I posted recently about his Homily on Luke in which he addressed good/ evil thoughts. Today I wanted to talk about two different passages from Origen’s homilies that address infant baptism. These are taken from The Faith of the Early FathersVol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens.

Origen writes in Homily 8 on Leviticus:

“In the Church, Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed if there were nothing in infants which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would seem superfluous.”

And in Homily 5 on Romans he writes:

“The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. For the Apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stains of sin, which must by washed away through water and the Spirit.”

Now, I want to begin by saying that I come from church traditions that do not baptize infants. Churches which I have attended in the past, and the church I currently attend, practice baby dedications in lieu of infant baptism. This is when parents go up in front of the church with their baby and dedicate themselves to raising the child up in Christian faith. The church also often prays for the parents and the baby and commits to help the parents raise the child according to Christian teaching.

Origen’s homilies clearly emphasize the practice of infant baptism in light of some “stain of sin” that is present in everyone, including infants. In the first passage from Origen, his argument is predicated on Baptism being used only for the remission of sins. He provides a nice syllogism: Since Baptism is believed to be used for remission of sins and since we baptize infants, therefore infants must need remission of sins. If one does not view Baptism as a requirement for washing away sins (like many Protestant churches, including my own), then the syllogism falls apart. For example, if baptism is only a public declaration of one’s faith and a commitment to turn from past sins and a pattern of sinfulness, then baptizing an infant appears to be no different than a baby dedication. Often the prayers prayed by the minister in baby dedications and in infant baptisms are quite similar.

Now as to the second passage, Origen directly links baptism of infants and the “stain of sin” by pointing to the Apostles teachings and practices. Apostolic succession and authority was important in the early church. If you could trace a teaching or a belief back to the Apostles, then it was seen as more authoritative than something a group started practicing on their own. Origen here may simply be attempting to establish such an authoritarian link. However, I believe that it’s more likely that infant baptism was practiced by the Apostles. For example, we can look in the book of Acts, the conversion of Lydia and the baptism of her whole household (Acts 16.13-15). This passage is often pointed to as exemplifying infant baptism, i.e. that there were probably infants or young children in her household.

So what do we do about this? If the Apostles practiced it, doesn’t that mean we should today?

Well, what did Baptism mean in the New Testament? John the Baptist baptized people before Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead. His was a baptism of repentance. Why did Jesus get baptized in Mark 1? Baptism in the New Testament is an interesting thing to study, and I invite discussion on it more generally in the comments section. I think that a baptism of a “whole household” simply meant that the household had been dedicated to Christianity in place of Greco-Roman practices, or even traditional Judaism.

Personal story: I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist church and then took part in a “believer’s baptism” at an Evangelical Free Church as an 18 year-old. I also am about to be a father and my wife and I will surely dedicate our daughter in our church. We will also dedicate ourselves to raising her up in Christian teachings and principles.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you baptize infants in your church? Were your children baptized as infants? Should we/ do we believe that infants are inherently sinful?

Origen: The Angel on the Right Shoulder and the Devil on the Left

Devil+and+angel+homer2

After reaching the end of my Medieval blog series, I wanted to shift gears a bit. I have always enjoyed reading and studying about Origen of Alexandria (185-253 CE). He is one of the more intriguing of the church fathers. One could study any number of Origen’s writings and teachings (many of which are not part of what we would consider “mainstream” Christianity). Today I want to focus on a passage from his Homilies on Luke.

Origen writes in Homily 12, “To every [one] there are two attending angels, the one of justice and the other of wickedness. If there be good thoughts in our heart, and if righteousness be welling up in our soul, it can scarcely be doubted that an angel of the Lord is speaking to us. If, however, the thoughts of our heart be turned to evil, an angel of the devil is speaking to us.” (from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens, 201).

While I hardly think Origen’s words are truly represented by the picture above, there are some parallels. Who has not seen an image like the one above depicted in TV, movies, comic books, etc? The idea that we have a good and a wicked conscience each vying for control over our actions is something with which many of us are familiar. Origen attributes righteousness in one’s character to an angel of the Lord working in our lives, while noting that if our thoughts are evil, the devil is winning out. Origen might be on to something…

Picture this: You are sitting at home on the couch, not really doing anything at all. Maybe you’re flipping through the channels on TV and all of a sudden something reminds you of something you did earlier that day. Maybe it was an example of road rage (sorry, I live in Los Angeles and road rage is a way of life here) or an instance where you didn’t respond how you would have liked. Suddenly you feel shame for those actions and deeply remorseful. You may even pray to God for forgiveness in that moment. Should we give credit to a specific angel whispering in our ear? Or is it simply God’s spirit working in our lives? Does it matter as long as we attribute such repentance and life change to God?

What about the opposite? What about when someone irks you and you allow it to fester and maybe you even do something about it. Perhaps you tell someone how awful that first person was to you (and maybe exaggerate the truth a bit). Perhaps you sabotage that person’s promotion at work in order to get revenge? Are such actions the work of the devil on our shoulder? Is it original sin rearing its ugly head in our lives? Is it human nature to want to get revenge?

While the Homer Simpson cartoon above is obviously a reference to a pop-culture phenomenon more than an apt illustration of Origen’s theology, it still illustrates the good/ evil pull in the lives of people. Origen sees either the Lord or the devil working in our lives and in our hearts in many circumstances. In the 21st century, we might back away from such a spiritualization of daily life, but maybe we should adopt a more cosmic worldview. What do you think? Is Origen on to something? Do we close ourselves off in today’s world to such a way of thinking because we truly believe that God isn’t concerned with the mundane elements in our lives?

First Blog Post; Reading Christopher Beeley

Over the last week and a half, I have read Christopher A. Beeley’s new book The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition.

Beeley is an author I first encountered when I arrived at Fuller, as I began a research topic on Gregory of Nazianzus. My professor mentioned Beeley’s book Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. This book introduced me to many aspects of Nazianzus’s work with which I was not yet familiar. Beeley takes a very harsh tone to past scholars, decrying them for a lack of thoroughness, which he promises to deliver in his work on Gregory.

In his Unity of Christ, Beeley again brings a touch of his usual confrontational rhetoric, but tones it down a bit. This book seeks to view many Church Fathers and their Christologies in light of Origen’s influence. Beeley begins the book with an examination of Origen’s thought regarding the unity of Christ, and traces an Origenist thread through various figures such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and post-Chalcedonian thinkers such as Maximus Confessor.

In so doing, Beeley’s work succeeds in demonstrating an Origenist influence throughout these various Christian thinkers. He also succeeds in depicting Eusebius as a theologian in addition to his well-known position as an historian. However, Beeley’s work seeks to diminish Athanasius’s role in Nicene Christology. It is at this point in the work that his thesis becomes muddled due to his agenda of downplaying Athanasius. His remaining chapters are strong, especially the conclusion which provides an excellent summation of his arguments.

Overall, this book has successes and failures, the latter of which appear to be relatively minor. I feel that students of the Christological controversies in the Patristic period should engage with Beeley’s work. This book is slated for a book panel discussion at the AAR/ SBL national conference next weekend, and I am looking forward to hearing scholars engage its effectiveness as well as Beeley’s response to their critiques.