If I baptize you, but I’m just kidding, are you baptized? What if both of us are children? What if it’s fake church for fun? What if I grow up and become a famous bishop?
Medievalist Marcia Colish has spent a lot of time thinking about a wide range of marginal baptismal situations. She wrote a book about fake baptisms and forced baptisms (Faith, Fiction, and Force in Medieval Baptismal Debates), and more recently focused on play-baptisms by children in the 2015 Lovejoy Lecture (sponsored by and then published in the Journal of the History of Ideas) at the University of Pennsylvania. Her lecture, “The Boys on the Beach: Children’s Games and Baptismal Grace in Medieval Thought,” is a marvel of comprehensiveness.
I’m not sure if it goes anywhere theologically. I think water baptism is always involved with transitions in biographies and communities and generations, so liminal and marginal cases seem like these would seem to be helpfully provocative to consider. But what conclusions you draw probably depend on your presuppositions (and though Colish is interested in the nature of theological discourse, she’s not foregrounding the actual theology of water baptism).
Here’s the fun part: The whole thread of discussion gets started with a story about Athanasius first reported by Rufinus of Aquileia, who wrote a church history around 410. It’s a charming bit of hagiography:
Once when Bishop Alexander was celebrating the day of Peter Martyr in Alexandria, he was waiting in a place by the sea after the ceremonies were over for his clergy to gather for a banquet.
There he saw from a distance some boys on the seashore playing a game in which, as they often do, they were mimicking a bishop and the things customarily done in church. Now when he had gazed intently for a while at the boys, he saw that they were performing some of the more secret and sacramental things. He was disturbed and immediately ordered the clergy to be called to him and showed them what he was watching from a distance. Then he commanded them to go and get all the boys and bring them to him.
When they arrived, he asked them what game they were playing and what they had done and how. At first they were afraid, as is usual at that age, and refused, but then they disclosed in due order what they had done, admitting that some catechumens had been baptized by them at the hand of Athanasius, who had played the part of bishop in their childish game. Then he carefully inquired of those who were said to have been baptized what they had been asked and what they had answered, and the same of him who had put the questions, and when he saw that everything was according to the manner of our religion, he conferred with a council of clerics and then ruled, so it is reported, that those on whom water had been poured after the questions had been asked and answered correctly need not repeat the baptism, but those things should be completed which are customarily done by priests.
As for Athanasius and those who had played the part of presbyters and ministers in the game, he called together their parents, and having put them under oath, handed them over to be reared for the church.
That’s a classic tale of Young Athanasius and How Pious He Always Was. I’ve always loved the story, while also assuming it’s unlikely to be true.
What I didn’t know is that about 600 years later, the story began to be discussed for its theological implications:
Peter Damian (1052) praises Alexander’s good judgment, and is especially keen to point out that it took a real priest to assess the status of the boys, whether the baptized or the baptizers.
Alger of Liege (1110) thinks the boys are pagans; Gratian (1140) reckons they are catechumens and therefore their baptism is valid and not to be repeated; Roland of Bologna (1150) emphasizes the boys’ intention to be baptized and blames Alexander for failing to inquire into it (or to grapple with whether they were old enough to have such an intent); Hugh of St. Victor (1137) goes even further into the necessity of intention –of either the priest or the baptizand, if of age– and says that without it, we might erroneously consider a baby baptized if the person giving it a bath playfully recited the baptismal formula!
Peter Lombard (1155) says such playful baptism is no more legitimate than actors depicting baptism on stage. “It is evident to the wise that this could not be baptism.” Peter Comestor (1160s) also thinks it is an easy case, if nobody involved intended real baptism. Peter of Poitiers (1173) must not have the right text in front of him, because he thinks it’s a story about bishop Athanasius catching some Jewish boys mocking the sacrament. Hmm.
Propositinus of Cremona (1195) thinks the baptizer’s intention is the most important factor. He also cites an argument by Augustine (from De Baptismo 7) about a baptism that is carried out “as a farce, or a comedy, or a jest.” Augustine is not thinking of the Athanasius story, but of Donatist problems, and of issues related to baptisms by schismatics and heretics.
If I were asked whether the baptism which was thus conferred should be approved, I should declare my opinion that we ought to pray for the declaration of God’s judgment through the medium of some revelation seeking it with united prayer and earnest groanings of suppliant devotion, humbly deferring all the time to the decision of those who were to give their judgment after me, in case they should set forth anything as already known and determined.
Augustine is not sure, and thinks it would be wise to pray for an oracle. Riffing on this, Prepositinus says, “Why not doubt along with the doubting Augustine? [Cur non dubitas cum Augustinus dubitante?]”
William of Auxerre (1220), Guideo of Orchellis (1228), William of Melitona (1249), and Aquinas who concludes (in the Sentences commentary of 1256) that “it is understood by the wise that this is not baptism.” Scotus (1307) also says that a playful baptizand is no baptizand at all.
And here I thought it was just a cute Athanasius story.