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Nature, Grace, and Learning: Aquinas on Catechesis and Infant Baptism

One thing that the historical Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions have generally shared is a conviction that catechesis is vital to a robust faith. While the word catechesis today may have a slightly more Catholic flavor—especially since the implementation of the RCIA and the publication of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church—any quick glance at the sixteenth century will show the affinity with which reformers of all stripes displayed for catechetical instruction. We might recall that it was the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier in 1526, not Luther in 1529, much less the Tridentine catechists later that century, who published one of the earliest sixteenth-century catechisms in the form we know of them today.

But despite this shared conviction of the value of catechesis, the different assumptions about human nature maintained in these theological traditions—especially diverging views of the relationship between nature, grace, and the effects of the Fall—will tend to shape the plausibility of catechesis. Or so I am going to suggest. That is, if we want to think well about the long-term durability of catechesis in our churches, we also need to think about the intellectual habits that enable catechesis to flourish.

Is Catechesis Before Baptism Necessary?

Early reformers claimed to be rediscovering catechesis, which, they claimed, had fallen by the wayside in the long dark years of bloated papal hierarchies, imagistic spiritualities, and scholastic complexification. And still today, many historians of catechesis assume that catechesis “disappeared” once Christianity became the religion of the empire. When infant baptism became standardized, and to be baptized into the Church was equivalent to baptism into secular society, what need or even possibility was there for pre-baptismal catechesis?

That’s a story I often hear, anyways. So you can imagine my surprise to find no less than Thomas Aquinas himself commenting on catechesis in the Summa Theologiae, and even more surprised to find him reflecting on the theological conditions that ground pre-baptismal catechesis.

In Question 71, Article 1 of the Tertia Pars, amidst a series of articles on baptism, Aquinas responds to three objections to pre-baptismal catechesis. The first is a foundational theological question on the possibility of learning before the “new life” of baptism, and the latter two deal with the possibility of catechizing infants or children—those who are not yet intellectually capable of rationally comprehending catechetical teaching.

The first objection is that, since baptism brings new life, it would seem that any kind of instruction preceding baptism would be superfluous or at best negligible. Aquinas responds with a variation of his famous notion that grace does not destroy but completes nature: “The life of grace unto which a man is regenerated,” he says, “presupposes the life of the rational nature, in which man is capable of receiving instruction.” Human beings, in other words, even before baptism, have a rational nature that is capable of learning.

Behind this argument also lies the venerable patristic notion of “plundering the Egyptians.” Because God has graced even non-Christians with the possibility of true insights into the world, Christians can appropriate whatever in them is useful for the faith, so long as it is subordinated to an overarching Christian telos. The assumption, however, is that pre-baptized human beings have a rational nature capable of receiving instruction—even before the Fall. For Aquinas, then, not only is it possible that human nature is capable of learning, but the life of grace into which we are baptized presupposes and indeed depends on the premise of a rational nature.

Aquinas’s reflections here highlight how one’s anthropology shapes one’s approach to catechesis. Is fallen human nature capable of learning anything? Most people would say yes. But is fallen nature capable of learning anything that is relevant to baptism? This question gets a little trickier.

Compare Aquinas’s view to this sixteenth-century Puritan prayer “to be said before studying or reading holy scripture.” The prayer begins with an acknowledgment that we cannot know anything apart from God’s grace, and that all knowledge and wisdom comes from God.

If my knowledge be small, yet I doubt nothing but that I am the child of thy everlasting kingdom: and therefore by thy mighty power I shall grow (when it shall be thy good will and pleasure) to a more full and riper knowledge, as of a more perfect age, wherein my faith shall be fully able to comprehend and perceive the breadth, depth, height and greatness of thy great mercies and gracious promises.

One can feel the almost deferential anxiety about learning anything apart from God. It is solely God’s will and prerogative when, and how much, we learn anything. In the meantime, resting upon God’s grace, we ought neither despair, nor be overly careful, but should “confess the weakness of my faith, waiting for the fuller revealing of thy glorious light, when thou shalt think [it] meet and convenient.”[1]

My point here is not to suggest that a strongly Calvinist view of noetic sin undermines the plausibility of catechesis. I find the kind of theology in the prayer above quite beautiful in its recognition of the total dependence upon God for any ray of illumination we might encounter.

However, read against Aquinas’s reflections in the Summa, we can see the integral link between the nature-grace relationship and the possibilities of catechesis. Taken to an extreme, if we think human nature is so corrupted that any instruction before the regenerating grace of baptism is superfluous, then ultimately, why bother?

Aquinas on Infant Baptism, Sponsorship, and the Church’s Corporate Hearing

In the second and third replies, Aquinas takes up the issue of infant baptism more directly. If you baptize infants or young children, why bother teaching them, since they do not have the intellectual capacity to learn the material content of the faith? And if the goal of catechesis is to enable one to make a confession of faith—while a child cannot confess his own faith, and no one else can confess it for him or know whether he will make it in the future—again, why bother with catechesis?

Aquinas’s answers to these questions are also illuminating. He refers to a previous question (Q. 69, on the efficacy of baptism for children), where he quoted Augustine’s Sermon 176—that “Mother Church lends other feet to the little children that they may come; another heart that they may believe; another tongue that they may confess”—to argue that children do in fact believe, “but not by their own act, but by the faith of the Church, which is applied to them.”

Now Aquinas extends this argument to why the Church catechizes prior to baptism, even though the catechumens are children who are not capable of making their own profession of faith. The primary conviction in Augustine’s and Aquinas’s ecclesiology, which is heavily Pauline, is that the members of the Church are not isolated individuals but a familial body, joined together to Christ their head in the bond of Love that is the Holy Spirit.

With this Pauline ecclesiology, Aquinas (and Augustine) can more easily affirm the way in which the ears of one member of the body can be “lent” to another. One can listen, see, or hear on behalf of others to whom they are bound in the unity of Christ.[2]

The way in which we are bound to one another comes to the fore in the third objection. When the sponsor professes the Church’s faith on behalf of the child, the sacrament of faith is able to be bestowed upon the child. But it is the “faith” itself, Aquinas says, that constitutes the “bond” by which the two are bound together.

He who answers in the child’s stead: “I do believe,” does not foretell that the child will believe when it comes to the right age, else he would say: “He will believe”; but in the child’s stead he professes the Church’s faith which is communicated to that child, the sacrament of which faith is bestowed on it, and to which faith he is bound by another. For there is nothing unfitting in a person being bound by another in things necessary for salvation. In like manner the sponsor, in answering for the child, promises to use his endeavors that the child may believe.

When it comes to the grace of Baptism, it is entirely appropriate that the grace of the sacrament be administered through these ecclesial bonds—not just of the priestly administration of the sacrament but also of the bonds of the faith, which hold together child and sponsor. The bond upon the sponsor is that, “in answering for the child, [he or she] promises to use his endeavors that the child may believe.”

Aquinas admits that the same scenario is not the case for adult baptizands, who have the use of reason. Nonetheless, for children and (presumably) for those without the full capacity of reason, the Church still opens wide its arms, seeking to be a means of grace not just for those who are have reason enough to understand it but for all who may find themselves caught up in the bonds of love.

Aquinas touches on the issue of catechizing only briefly here, but the objections he raises are still very much with us. He gives us much to reflect on, especially for those traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, who baptize infants.

Most importantly, Aquinas helps us think about the theological contexts in which catechesis can thrive. Do we have an account of human nature that is consistent with our practice of catechesis? Do we promote catechesis with one hand, while subtly undermining it with the other? As we sort through these fundamental questions, we can then be in a better position to sustain practices of catechesis that will enable our varying traditions to enter deeper into communion through the bonds of faith.


Alex Fogleman is a doctoral student in historical theology and patristics at Baylor University in Waco, TX, and director of the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis.

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