Of Celibate Bishops and Infant Baptism in the post-Nicene Church

While in Bendigo recently in the company of the excellent Fraser Pearce, we were indulging in two of my favourite pastimes simultaneously: talking theology and op-shopping. This took us to the local Salvo’s store, where we found a surprisingly good collection of theological books for sale. For $3, I picked up a copy of J.W.C. Wand’s “Doctors and Councils”, published in 1962. (Wand was the Anglican bishop of London at the time of it’s publication.)

I have not read enough of the lives of the Saints, so I have been enjoying this book immensely. Today, I came across the following paragraphs on St Gregory Nazianzus:

Gregory was born in the year of the Council of Nicea, 325, on his father’s estate at Arianzus near the town of Nazianzus, of which his father was the bishop. The father had belonged originally to an obscure sect from which he was won to Orthodoxy by the persuasions of his wife, Nonna. She was not only a good wife, but a splendid mother, and deserves to be ranked with Monica, the mother of Augustine, as among the women who have made great contributions to history through their influence upon their sons. There was an older sister, Gorgonia, and a younger brother named Caesarius….

He was there [in Athens] for twelve years altogether, from the age of 18 to 30.

About this time he was caught at sea in a violent storm, of which he has left us a vivid description, and during it he pledged his life to the service of God. He returned with his brother, Caesarius, to Nazianzus, and it is possible that at this time he was baptised…

In 374 the elder Gregory died, as did also his wife, Nonna, at about the same time. For a period Gregory continued to administer the Church of Nazianzus while doing his utmost to secure the appointment of a new bishop…

Worn out before his time he died in 390, the year when at Hippo in North Africa the great Augustine was ordained priest.

Now this I found interesting – and educational – because it redrew the picture in my mind of the post-Nicene Church. I had thought that by this time two practices universally accepted in the Church today – episcopal celibacy and infant baptism – were already well in place. After all, all three of the Cappadocians were celibates, as was Augustine later. And all three came from well-established Christian families. I knew that Augustine was baptised as an adult, but I thought that the reason he was not baptised as a child was because his father was not a Christian. But Gregory’s father, Gregory of Nazianzus Sr, was a bishop and his mother apparently a devout orthodox Christian – so why was Gregory Jnr only baptised as an adult? And at first I surmised, when reading that Gregory’s father was a bishop, that his episcopal service must have begun after the death of his wife, but then I read that his wife died at about the same time he did.

So, you live and you learn. Does any Reader of SCE have more information of when these two practices – episcopal celibacy and infant baptism – became more widespread? My suspicion is that the practice of infant baptism at least became more common as a result of the writings of Augustine, who was just beginning his ecclesiastical career at the time when Gregory died.

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26 Responses to Of Celibate Bishops and Infant Baptism in the post-Nicene Church

  1. Joshua says:

    Remember, the norm was for men called – or forced by their superiors and fellow parishioners! – to be already married, but to lay aside the use of marriage, and henceforth to live with their wives in perpetual continence. Over time, this evolved into the discipline of celibacy in the West, first through the wife and husband living separately, she often as a nun, and still later through the change to ordaining unmarried clergy as the norm. In the East, the norm of perpetual continence was maintained for bishops, but eased for married priests so that it became periodic only (hence the priest only celebrates the Liturgy on Sundays and Feasts, being bound by continence for the preceding night). In the West, to this day, a married man may be ordained a priest if his wife agree to separate from him so that henceforth both live in continence: there was a famous nineteenth century example of a lady who did so at the behest of her convert husband – he became a priest, she a nun who founded her own order, but he returned to the C of E and hounded her through the courts attempting to reassert his marital rights…

  2. Peregrinus says:

    On the age of baptism question here, I’ve no information, but doesn’t a lot depend on when Nonna succeeded in effecting the father’s conversion? It may well be that by the time this had happened Gregory was of an age where his own baptism would not routinely follow. The opening sentence in the passage you quote does suggest that the father was already a bishop when Gregory was born, but I may be wrong in reading that into it. And Joshua’s understanding suggest that the family would have to have been complete and, indeed, raised to independence, before the father could have become a priest, never mind a bishop.

    • Schütz says:

      It is all very confusing, isn’t it? As I understand Wand’s account of it, Gregory Snr was already a bishop when Gregory Jnr was born – AND there was a YOUNGER brother, Ceasarius, born after that, so Joshua’s suggestion doesn’t seem to have applied in this case. More research required, methinks…

  3. Tony Bartel says:

    Joshua, it is doubtful if perpetual continence was ever the norm for priests or deacons in the East as it was in the West. The Quinisext Council (612) said:

    “Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence.”

    This was not seen as the reversal of an earlier practice, but as a continuation of the norm against a local rule observed by the Roman Church.

    Of course in both East and West, marriage was prohibited to clergy after ordination.

    • Schütz says:

      So, do you know then, Lopez ol’ boy, exactly when and where EPISCOPAL celibacy became the norm? That’s my real question.

      BTW, greetings from the Lutheran brethren Boyd, Andrew B, and David S., in whose excellent company I have spent the last six days.

  4. Matthias says:

    Perhaps St Gregory , being a Bishops son,decided not to be baptised until he had received his call. I have heard of people ,certainly in the circles i grew up in,who made a decision for Christ ,were/are far more spiritual than me ,yet who put off being baptised until they had received a calling. I also know of an Chinese Christian ,christened as a Anglican,wanting to become a member of the Church of Christ i grew up in. The ardent adult immersionists felt he should be baptised again. My father ,as a member of the Diaconnate and church secretary opposed them,saying that he and another church officer had interviewed this young man and were reassured that he was truly a Christian and that his membership of the church would confirm his baptism. They won their point,the young man joined and i believe is still a serving member at that church. Ah Believer’s churches,you can alter the interpretations of the SACRAMENTS and make a sacrament of the interpretation

    • Schütz says:

      But my point, Matthias, is that Gregory was not baptised AS AN INFANT, a matter over which he would have had no say.

      • Matthias says:

        no he was baptised exactly as i was-as one who had a say in it at an older age.I
        The book THE REFORMERS AND THEIR STEPCHILDREN sets forth the reasons as to why adult baptism was the norm of the Early church,and believes that infant baptism became a sign of citizenship with the Constantinian State.

        • Kiran says:

          But hang on. If you believe (as I certainly do) that it is God’s Grace that has primacy, and that we follow on, why is your having a say in it so important? As to Adult baptism being the norm of the early Church, I am not sure you can draw the conclusions you seem to be drawing from it. One constantly hears of whole families being baptized. Presumably, this included children, and slaves.

          Also, I think part of the point here is that adult baptism was still the done thing well after Constantine. It had nothing (directly) to do with the Constantinian state. It had to do with the normalization of Christianity.

  5. Joshua says:

    The decrees of the Quinisext Council (or Council “in Trullo”, being held in the Trullan Hall) were significantly never recognized in the West (another of them purported to ban representations of Christ as the Lamb of God, a favourite Syrian devotion brought to Rome by Pope Sergius around this era, who inserted the Agnus Dei into the Mass) – and by its wording (or so I was taught, based upon modern scholarly investigations), this canon suggests rather an apology for and rationalization of a relaxation in Apostolic discipline.

  6. Joshua says:

    I seem to recall that one or more of the canons of an early Council of Carthage (North Africa being “more Roman than Rome”) bears witness to the Primitive Church’s self-understanding and awareness of the rule of perpetual continence enjoined upon the clergy – what modern scholars derive from the Pauline standard that priests and bishops be “husbands of one wife” (i.e. the Church). So I was taught anyway.

  7. FrGregACCA says:

    Re: infant baptism. From what I’ve read, it seems that during the fourth century, as opposed to before and after, there was a practice of delaying baptism, although writings from earlier indicate the practice of infant baptism. Origen, for example, claims that infant baptism was instituted by the Apostles. However, Chrysostom and other famous Saints of the period were also not baptized as infants. And Constantine, famously, was not baptized until shortly before he died. One reason, apparently, was because, at that time, the discipline of the Church made it very difficult for the baptized to receive Reconciliation (then celebrated before the whole congregation) for major, public sins, especially lapsing in the face of persecution; such reconciliation, also, was apparently only available once in a person’s lifetime.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, I knew about Constantine, of course, and that was partly behind a recent discussion on these pages about the acceptability of a military career for a Christian, but Chrysostom too, you say? That again is news to me. Was he the son of Christian parents?

      • FrGregACCA says:

        I had assumed he was, but perhaps not. His father, who was in the military, died when he was very young, and his mother raised him. She, it seems, may well have been a pagan.

  8. Peregrinus says:

    For what it’s worth, the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on Gregory states that he was born after his father became a priest, but before be became a bishop, and also suggests that he was baptised in adulthood. A brother was also born after his father’s priestly ordination. There was a sister whose date of birth is not mentioned. The article speaks of the father and mother as a couple long after the father’s Episcopal ordination, i.e. the mother did not retire to a convent at that point.

    All of which, if true, suggests two things.

    First, at that time and place (Asia minor, first half of the fourth century) priests were not expected to observe continence. After having fathered at least two children subsequent to his priestly ordination, the father was made a bishop. Clearly priests were not expected to be continent, and we may also infer that bishops were not expected to be celibate, or to be free of family cares. (Gregory and his brother were both less than five years old at the time; their sister may have been older, but probably not by much.)

    Secondly, infant baptism was evidently not expected at that time and place. Gregory was born to Christian parents and was raised as a Christian but was not baptised. Again, not having baptised Gregory (and, it is reasonable to suppose, his other children) was not an impediment to the father’s ecclesiastical career.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, that means that perhaps Bishop Wand was incorrectly suggesting (or may not have intended to suggest) that Gregory Snr was a bishop at the time of his sons’ birth. In fact, you could read it that way:

      “Gregory was born in the year of the Council of Nicea, 325, on his father’s estate at Arianzus near the town of Nazianzus, of which his father was [later appointed] the bishop.”

      That works.

  9. Kiran says:

    I think St. Paulinus of Nola was still married when he was elected to the Episcopacy. On the other hand, I can’t think of a prominent Bishop who was married after this (unless they survived their wives, like Cardinal Manning, who apparently used to write his homilies sitting on his wife’s grave).
    I think Infant baptism was already coming in, and becoming more prevalent in those times, though it might have been influenced more by considerations of mortality: Apparently, Augustine was almost baptized (as he tells us) in his late teens, when he was sick, but he recovered. Keep in mind too that the confessional discipline of the Church was much stricter during that time. Also, there were a variety of issues on which the different Fathers of that time were disagreed as to the obligations of a Christian: Some went so far as to say that Christians couldn’t be soldiers. Some of this was only resolved by St. Augustine.

    Augustine himself (following on St. Ambrose) did very much to establish both practices directly and indirectly: His little community of canons (as well as the regulations he put in place) set the example for people aspiring to the priesthood. And it was Augustine who finally intertwined the destinies of the City and God, and systematized baptismal theology, and brought Christianity within the reach of ordinary people.

    Another question I would be interested in raising is, when the western and eastern practices as to confirmation and first communion diverged.

    • Schütz says:

      St Paulinus of Nola, d. 431.

      cf. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11585b.htm

      “Another question I would be interested in raising is, when the western and eastern practices as to confirmation and first communion diverged.”

      Ah. Good question… It would have to have been related to the rise in the practice of infant baptism, no?

      • FrGregACCA says:

        Can’t you give a precise date on the divergence, meaning that confirmation was often delayed in the West, but the crucial fact was that, in the West, confirmation remained virtually the exclusive province of the bishop. As I understand it, this also delayed First Communion, because Confirmation remained a requirement for First Communion until, I believe, Pius X, early in the 20th Century.

        At the same time, if a bishop were around, infants were still often confirmed in the West immediately after baptism. Elizabeth I was baptized and confirmed as an infant.

        • Kiran says:

          Yes. I think this was the case (that confirmation was done at any age whenever the Bishop happened to be there). I do know that in the Middle Ages, often a Bishop’s ride used to be interrupted by a Parish Priest who had gathered all his charges on hearing that the Bishop was at large.

          I was told by a Dominican priest who I trust on these matters that even St. Pius X did not intend to change the traditional order of confirmation and First Communion, that his intentions are best fulfilled by having early confirmation. Speaking for myself, I tend to prefer this. The current practice of early first communion, but late confirmation seems the wrong way round, and also has created a confusion regarding the importance, not to mention the theology, of Confirmation. For most people, Confirmation has become the one thing that the Council of Trent says that Confirmation is not.

          • FrGregACCA says:

            I think you’re correct re: the intentions of St. Pius X, but we all know what the practical effect was.

            Therefore, allow me to use this opportunity to grind a favorite axe of mine, and to advocate that the West conform to the East in this matter, at once baptizing, chrismating/confirming, and communicating infants who will be raised in the faith, encouraging their parents, once they have been so initiated, to bring them regularly to Holy Communion.

            • Kiran says:

              :) You may if you wish. But for my part, I think that if the last century (or even the last two) have taught us anything, it is the need to cling to the little practices that distinguish us from each other. I am in favor of separate Easters for instance, because while in the short run they might seem to keep us apart, in reality, they strengthen us in what makes us Christian, and thus ultimately bring us together. It is like Fish on Fridays being the realization of Catholicism among the “Bog Irish.” Likewise, the Western practice has been Western Practice for quite a while, even if there is no set age at which Confirmation happens. I think earlier Confirmation (age 6 0r 7) by a Bishop is the go, immediately followed by First Communion.

  10. You may want to refer to “Episcopal celibacy in the Orthodox tradition” by Bishop Peter (L’Huillier) of New York (Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly v. 35, no. 2-3, p. 271-300 [1991]) and to “Reflections on the Question of Episcopal Celibacy” by Fr. John Behr (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 36:1-2 (1992) 141-9.)

    Incidentally, Abp. Peter ordained me Reader (anagnost).

  11. Here, too, is a discussion of the issue of priestly and episcopal celibacy from an Orthodox POV referring to the RC position:


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