More on the development of doctrine: Sasse on Infant Baptism

Returning to that can of worms, the “development of doctrine”, I noted an interesting post a little while back on the blog of the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Pastor Matt Harrison (can anyone tell me – is it “Doctor” Harrison?). Matt is an expert on the Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse, and this piece comes from him:

[T]he question of infant baptism is a theological question, not merely one of practical sociology. Neither is it a question that is to be answered from history. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica III Quaestio, 68:9) meets the objection that intention and faith are necessary for baptism with a quotation from the last chapter of the “Heavenly Hierarchy” of Dionysius the Areopagite, according to which the apostles approved the baptism of infants. But that is, to say the least, a tradition that cannot be verified.

Sasse follows this, however, with a good run down of the actual historical evidence for the apostolicity of the practice of infant baptism, then this conclusion:

It is obvious from the above that the historical question whether the church of the apostolic age knew and practiced infant baptism must be answered in the affirmative with a very high degree of probability. But that fact in no wise decides the theological question concerning the right of infant baptism. After all, the church of Corinth in the days of the apostle Paul practiced a vicarious baptism for the dead [I Corinthians 15:29]. It is possible, therefore, that we are dealing here with a very ancient abuse. Theologically, infant baptism can be grounded only on Scriptural evidence which proves it to be a legitimate form of Baptism.

The Catholic Church would never consider the possibility that a practice which can be fairly convincingly shown to have been in the Church since the time of the apostles and which has been practiced continuously ever since with the full authority and approval of the Church to be “a very ancient abuse”. We are more than happy to provide the theological reasoning for the practice, but the tradition alone is sufficient for us to say that it is a dogma of the Church that the sacrament of holy baptism is not to be denied to infants. We do not require “Scriptural evidence which proves it to be a legitimate form of baptism”. Of course, if there were actually a clear Scriptural injunction against the practice, that would be a different matter.

The differing ways in which Lutherans and Catholics approach tradition in this matter is similar to the question of the ordination of women. The Catholic Church holds that the ancient and continuous tradition that women are not ordained to holy orders sufficient to decide the matter. We are happy to provide theological reasoning for this, and we also note that the few Scriptural passages that have relevance to the matter seem to point in the direction of affirming this tradition. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the Scriptural witness alone is conclusive on the matter, and we regard this very inconclusiveness of Scripture – coupled with the protestant requirement for specifically Scriptural proof – part of the reason why there has been so much variation in practice among the protestants themselves.

It is an interesting comparison in theological method, to say the least. Of course it all goes back to the fact that Catholics recognise God’s revelation in both Scripture AND Tradition, whereas for Lutherans, the latter will always remain suspect.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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6 Responses to More on the development of doctrine: Sasse on Infant Baptism

  1. Matthias says:

    In my RCIA instruction yesterday, the priest -Fr T- explained to me the Catholic belief in both Scripture and Tradition. He noted the fulfillment of Revelation with the Christ’s Birth ,Death ,Resurrection and Ascension,and that any revelations people have had consequently ,are maintained within the Christological context and an other is false.

  2. Chris Jones says:

    Surprisingly (given the title of the post) there is nothing in this post on the subject of the development of doctrine. What the post says is that infant baptism is a practice that goes all the way back to the Apostles — not that it is a doctrine and practice which legitimately developed later.

    So infant baptism is something that supports my position on development, not yours. Infant baptism is legitimately part of the Apostolic Tradition — that is, it was actually handed down by and from the Apostles themselves. It was not something that developed later (putatively) on the basis of Tradition; it is itself part of the Tradition, from the beginning.

    “Tradition” and “Development” are opposites, not synonyms.

    • Schütz says:

      I guess I should have fleshed out my argument a little more, Chris.

      The connection between the Sasse story and “the development of doctrine” is that Sasse entertains the possibility that the practice of infant baptism was a unauthentic “development” in the very early stage of the Church’s existence, that is, “a very ancient abuse”. It is not enough for him that it is an “apostolic” practice, for the Church in the time of the apostles could have erred, and, even in that first generation, “developed” a practice which was an abuse and not an authentic “development” in accordance with the wishes of our Lord. Neither the apostolicity nor the ancient pedigree of the practice cuts the mustard with Sasse: it must have Scriptural proof.

      That’s the problem when you ditch the belief in the indefectibility of the Church. If you believe that the Church, through the process of the “development of doctrine” (as she calls it) might in fact have introduced error into her dogma, then the question arises: just when did this error first enter into the Church? At Pope Innocent III? At Constantine? In the Second Century? Or, in fact, in the Apostolic Age itself?

      Or to put it slightly differently, if you acknowledge that doctrine HAS “developed” in the Catholic Church, yet if you believe that the process of this “development” has introduced error into the Church’s teaching, then how early did this process of deviation from the truth begin?

      • Chris Jones says:

        Thanks, that “fleshing out” does help to understand your point of view.

        One thing I almost added to my comment but didn’t because I wanted to be brief, is that I don’t agree with Sasse on this point. I do not believe that it is necessary (and in fact I do not believe that it is possible) to prove the legitimacy of infant baptism on the basis of Scripture alone. The idea that everything the Church says and does has to be proven explicitly from “Scripture Alone,” divorced from history and from Tradition in its manifold forms, isn’t even very Lutheran. The Lutheran attitude at the Reformation was never “whatever is not in Scripture has to go” but always “we keep what has been handed down to us UNLESS it is contrary to Scripture.” Sasse’s attitude towards infant baptism (at least according to what you have quoted) seems more the former attitude than the latter.

        BTW, I hold as strongly as you do to the indefectibility of the Church, but I have a very different view of how that indefectibility works out in practice, a view that I believe to be much more consistent with the historical reality of the Church (especially in the first millennium).

        how early did this process of deviation from the truth begin?

        Well, that is a softball question if ever there was one. It began when Peter caved to the Judaizers and had to be opposed by Paul (just like Honorius caved to the Monotheletes). In fact, it began even earlier than that, when Peter, immediately after having been called the Rock upon whom the Church would be built, denied the necessity for the Cross and the Resurrection (Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. Mt 16.22) — in other words, denied the Gospel. There has never been a time in the history of the Church when there was “pure doctrine,” when error did not have to be opposed and fought, even at the “highest level.”

        To recognize that is not to deny the indefectibility of the Church, but to realize that one cannot make a simple identification of that indefectibility with the institutional magisterium. In the messiness of Church history, things are more complicated than that.

  3. David Kennedy says:

    This reminds me about the old joke about the economist:

    “Yes, it certainly seems to work in practice. But will it work in theory?”

    • Schütz says:

      Ho, ho! That is precisely Sasse’s argument: “Yes, it certainly is an ancient and continous and fully approved traditional practice of the Church, but is it theologically correct?” The fact that Sasse (and all other Confessional Lutherans) answers a resounding “yes” to this question, does not change the fact that Catholics and Lutherans arrive at the affirmation of infant baptism via completely different sets of questions and assumptions.

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