Did the Apostles Baptize Infants?

One of the most difficult issues of early church history is the question of infant baptism. Should Christians baptize their infant children, or should we wait until they commit their lives to Christ to baptize them?

It seems that only one view could be the correct one. And on such an important issue as the time of baptism, we should be able to find a fair amount of evidence from Scripture and the early church.

So what’s the state of the evidence? Is it as clear as the evidence for nonresistance or the evidence against the Papacy? Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as positive. The evidence that we have seems to point both ways.

Infant baptism originated before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The big question, however, is whether or not it originated with the apostles. In this post, I’ll discuss how we can find an answer to that question, and in future posts, I’ll discuss the evidence that we need to account for.

As an Anabaptist, I believe that believer’s baptism better represents the faith of the apostles. However, I will try to treat the evidence fairly, giving the benefit of the doubt to the other side as much as possible.

Defining terms

First, I should define my terms, so that it’s clear what is at stake.

  • By “infants,” I mean “children of the age when humans are typically too young to form their own beliefs or commitments.”
  • By “believers,” I mean “those who believe in Christ and commit their lives to him.”

I will refer to my view as “believers’ baptism,” and to those who hold to this view as “credobaptists.” This view holds that only those who consciously make a profession of faith should be baptized.

I will refer to the opposing view as “infant baptism,” and to those who hold to this view as “paedobaptists.” This view holds that all children of Christian parents should be baptized in their infancy.

There’s a gray area

Among credobaptists, there are different beliefs about how old a child should typically be before baptism. Some are willing to baptize any child who makes a conscious profession of faith, even a four-year-old. Some don’t believe that one is mentally mature enough to make a true commitment to Christ until one reaches adulthood. Anabaptists tend to fall somewhere in the middle—typically, their children tend to receive baptism between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

I will not be weighing in on this discussion, since it would make my article series too long and too complex. Furthermore, I think that there’s room for people to have differing opinions that are each valid.

Instead, I will to focus on a more foundational question. Should the children of believers be baptized as infants, before they form their own beliefs and commitments, or should they only be baptized when they have personally believed in and committed themselves to Christ? I won’t be weighing in on what general age children reach before they are able to make a commitment to Christ.

The evidence for and against infant baptism

In this section, I’ll give an overview of the evidence that people on both sides of the fence use in order to come to conclusions about the subject of infant baptism. I think the ambivalence of the evidence below shows that this is a very complex issue.

Here’s a summary of the relevant evidence:

  1. The teaching of Jesus and the apostles consistently links baptism with salvation through belief in Christ.
  2. The New Testament mentions households of people who were baptized by the apostles.
  3. In one place where he mentions baptism, Paul uses circumcision as an analogy. Circumcision was performed on male infants.
  4. For the first century or so of the church, baptism is consistently linked with belief in and commitment to Christ, and there is complete silence about infant baptism (AD 33-180).
  5. For about fifty years following this (AD 180-235), we have no direct evidence that church leaders advocated for infant baptism.
  6. In the second and third centuries AD, we hear that some young children, possibly even some infants, were being baptized.
  7. Tomb inscriptions suggest that, in the third and fourth centuries, at least in Rome, infant baptism was uncommon.
  8. The large majority of Christian leaders who specifically weighed in on the subject of infant baptism during the early centuries accepted the practice as legitimate.
  9. From the 200s to 400s, both infant baptism and believers’ baptism coexisted relatively peacefully. Each side always had its detractors, but neither condemned the other as heretical.

At first, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair of ever finding out the truth. It seems that half of the considerations favor infant baptism, and half of them favor believers’ baptism. However, if we look at the two different views and how they deal with the evidence, we find that most of the evidence can fit into either view.

The Competing Narratives

Nearly all of the evidences that I’ve listed is actually quite consistent with either infant baptism or believers’ baptism. How is that? It’s because no knowledgeable credobaptist claims that the early church only practiced believers’ baptism for the first three centuries. And no well-informed paedobaptist claims that the early church only practiced infant baptism during this same time period.

Neither view would work at all. Instead, credobaptists and paedobaptists have looked at the evidence as a whole, and have developed historical narratives that attempt to explain how all the evidence works together. These narratives try to account for the evidence that exists, and the best narrative will be the one that makes the most sense of the different pieces of evidence that we find from that era.

The Credobaptist Narrative

The credobaptist narrative will be one that assumes that the apostles taught believers’ baptism (so therefore believers’ baptism is correct), but that also accounts for the conflicting historical evidence. So what is that narrative?

Here’s how we could construct a narrative that appears to fit the facts:

The teaching of Jesus and the apostles consistently links baptism with salvation through belief in Christ, and the New Testament gives us no examples of infants who were baptized. A belief in believers’ baptism remained through the first century or so of the church, but over time, people started baptizing infants. In the second and third centuries, infant baptism was fairly uncommon, and Christians tended to baptize only infants and children who were about to die. However, around the middle of the third century, people began to be interested in making infant baptism the norm, and started to offer reasons for why all infants needed baptism. But many people never accepted infant baptism until about the 400s, when it became the norm and was eventually mandated by the institutional church.

Though I’m a credobaptist, I’m not saying that this is exactly how things happened. This is a very quick summary, and when I go into detail on the evidence, we’ll be able to better understand how everything worked together. For now, my point is simply to show that the evidence can be made to fit into a credobaptist narrative.

The Paedobaptist Narrative

On the other hand, the paedobaptist narrative will be one that assumes that the apostles taught infant baptism, a narrative that also accounts for the conflicting historical evidence. So what is that narrative?

Here’s how we could construct a narrative that appears to fit the facts:

Jesus and the apostles linked baptism with belief because they were primarily converting adults rather than teaching believers. However, the apostles baptized entire households without regard to age, and Paul teaches that baptism is the new circumcision, and should therefore be applied to infants. Multiple early Christian writers say that infant baptism was happening in their time, and most of them either wrote in favor of it or at least didn’t raise any concerns. However, people wrongly started delaying baptism because they wanted to wait to wash their sins away until they had committed their worst sins, and this practice wasn’t stamped out until the 400s or so.

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Again, this is just a very quick sketch of the paedobaptist narrative, and it isn’t intended to cover all the nuances of the argument. My main point is again that a narrative can easily be constructed to fit the evidence into a paedobaptist framework.

How do we tell which is right?

So now we’ve looked at how both sides view the evidence, and we find that both sides can make a surprisingly good case for their view. At first, this might seem like it makes our job harder, not easier.

But this is actually a step forward, because when we realize this, we can see that most of the evidence is fairly irrelevant to the discussion at hand. If we want to find out which view is right, most of the evidence isn’t really helpful, since it supports both views.

Instead, we simply need to ask the question, “Which fact or facts only fit comfortably into one of the two narratives?” We can then center the discussion around those facts, rather than giving priority to the facts that could support either view.

I believe that, when we look for the facts that support only one view, we can see that one of the views—believers’ baptism—has a clear advantage over the other one.

Which evidence doesn’t fit paedobaptism?

So what is the evidence that we need to focus on? The evidence that only fits into one view or the other is primarily the evidence found in the New Testament and the first hundred years of church history.

The credobaptist narrative held that the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, as well as the first nearly 150 years of the church, is in favor of believers’ baptism—but the paedobaptist narrative can’t accept this argument as true. And the paedobaptist narrative based itself on New Testament household baptisms and Paul’s reference to circumcision—but the credobaptist narrative can’t accept these arguments to be true.

This means that our methodology is clear. We need to review the arguments from the New Testament and see which ones work and which ones don’t. When we’ve done so, we’ll know which view is correct. We should also review the first century or so of church history and see whether it fits with our findings.

Then after working through those arguments, we will want to review the remaining evidence—the evidence that can reasonably be framed to fit either view. If we find the correct view, we may see signs here and there throughout the ambivalent evidence. However, it’s important to remember that the ambivalent evidence is not clear enough to help us decide which side is correct. That’s why we need to begin by focusing on the clear evidence—the evidence from the New Testament and the very earliest years of the church.

In the next article, I’ll show that the credobaptist arguments from the New Testament actually work, while the paedobaptist arguments from the New Testament really don’t get off the ground. And in the following article, I’ll discuss the early Christian evidence and show that, even though most of the early Christian evidence is ambivalent and could support either view, the earliest writings of the church support believers’ baptism.

What comes next?

So far, this has merely been a summary of the evidence with regard to infant baptism. I’ve attempted to bring some clarity to the way we think about the subject, but this article is certainly not enough to prove one way or the other. In my next article, I’ll discuss the New Testament evidence for believers’ baptism, and the following article will discuss the early Christian evidence for believers’ baptism. I’ll give the credobaptist arguments and respond to the paedobaptist position.

Finally, I recommend David Bercot’s recent series on infant baptism for another take on the whole discussion. Bercot covers much of the same evidence that I do, but also touches on details that I haven’t covered in the following articles. Our approaches to the evidence are different in a number of ways, but they complement each other. Taking in both series will help give a more rounded understanding of the subject and how it can be understood from the perspective of believers’ baptism.

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