The Roman Empire, Baptism and State Religion

Donald Bridge and David Phypers make an interesting point about baptism in the their book The Water that Divides. I have never heard it before and thought it worth posting below.  The thing I find most interesting about their book is that they focus not merely on the various doctrinal arguments regarding baptism but they investigate baptisms historical development in the church in connection with cultural prejudices.  To clarify, they seek to see if there is a clear relationship between historical context and baptismal practice.  This piece on the Roman empire was quite informative:

                If Christian belief moves along a spectrum concerning the nature of salvation, it moves along another spectrum when it comes to the doctrine of the church.  When Christians are in a minority in a society, and maybe persecuted as well, then the church is quite clearly the community of believers, with the possible inclusion of their children.  But if Christians enjoy the support and encouragement of secular authority, if it becomes fashionable to be Christian, and if secular authority welcomes an alliance with religious leaders, then a short step can easily be made to identify the local community, the nation, or even the empire with the church!

                This is precisely what happened at the beginning of the fourth century.  For three hundred years after Pentecost Christians struggled with the stigma of illegality.  One problem was their refusal to obey the required religion of the Roman empire, namely to worship the emperor.  In successive waves of persecution different emperors tried to enforce the law.  Then Constantine became a Christian.  But in declaring Christianity a religio licita, a legal religion, he did not merely grant Christians freedom to worship without offering devotion to him, but he made Christianity the ‘state religion’ as well.  By the end of the century people were persecuted for refusing to believe!  By the end of the fifth century to be Roman was to be Christian.  By the end of the fifteenth century the Bishop of Rome was the most powerful political figure on earth!

                Inevitably, infant baptism became normal.  It still is across large areas of the world where Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches retain strong links with the state.  And in northern Europe the idea of ‘established religion’ survived the Reformation in Protestant Anglicanism, Scottish Presbyterianism and German or Scandinavian Lutheranism.  To be born into any of these nations was to be born Christian and therefore to qualify for baptism.[1]

The authors are drawing a clear connection between historical context and baptismal practice. This connection doesn’t seem to be a stretch.  If postmodernism has taught us anything is it that we are all a product (to some degree) of our times.  Our own Western heritage seems to confirm their argument since infant baptism has been the overwhelmingly dominant practice of Western Christianity,[2] which, of course, stems from the largely western Roman Empire.  Some such as Richard Kidd, would say that there are various “proper [baptismal] responses” to social and cultural influences.  He leans towards a doctrine of baptism that is flexible and able to accommodate the preferences of culture and the context of Christians.[3]  I have not yet concluded whether or not I agree with such logic. However, if the excerpt from Bridge’s and Phyper’s book is accurate one thing seems clear: infant baptism may not be the product of apostolic teaching but simply a result of a natural historical process.



[1] Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water that Divides: Two Views on Baptism Explored (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2008), 197-198.

[2] David Wright points out that “A credible history of baptism, at least so far as Western Christianity is concerned, can be told only if the overwhelming domination of the tradition of infant baptism is subjected to searching scrutiny.”  David F. Wright, What has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism: An Enquiry at the End of Christendom (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2005), 5-6.

[3] Paul Fiddes, ed., Reflections On the Water (Smyth & Helwys, 1996), 58.

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