The Early Church and Infant Baptism

This post is part of a series on the question of infant baptism. Did the apostles baptize infants, or was that practice a later innovation? In my first post, I pointed out that most of the biblical and historical evidence can fit either view. Therefore, we should focus on the key points that can’t fit well into one narrative or the other.

In my last post, I discussed the evidence from the New Testament, and concluded that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles are one of the key points that support only one view. The view that the New Testament supports, notwithstanding some paedobaptist arguments, is believers’ baptism.

In this post, I’ll discuss the early church evidence for and against infant baptism. I’ll show that the evidence from the first century or so of the church supports the view that believers’ baptism was the apostolic practice, but that the rest of church history could be fit into either view.

Neither side can claim the default

In this discussion, paedobaptists may assume that their view is the default view. Therefore, whenever they find evidence that fits with their view, they take that as confirmation of their view. On the other hand, credobaptists often do the same. Assuming that credobaptism is the default, they may take evidence that is consistent with credobaptism as evidence for credobaptism.

This approach might be useful in other areas. For example, it makes sense that a Roman Catholic would assume the early church to have had a Papacy—until he finds that the evidence touted for the Papacy simply doesn’t work. And it makes sense for an Anabaptist to assume that the early church taught nonresistance—and he’ll find out that that’s what the early church indeed taught. In both of these areas, the evidence is so clear that it should convince people even if they default to believing something else, but still keep an open mind.

However, these attitudes aren’t helpful here. We can’t just assume that our view is the one that best fits, and then fit the evidence into our view. That’s because nearly all of the evidence actually fits with each view almost equally. And the evidence that fits better with one view rather than the other can still, with a bit of reframing, be fit into the other view.

So if we enter this discussion assuming that our view is the default and then responding to the evidence that looks like it doesn’t fit our view quite as well, we have only a 50% chance of arriving at the truth. Instead, we need to leave the jury out until we are convinced by the few pieces of evidence that are actually stronger.

Approaching this discussion, we can know that both infant baptism and believers’ baptism were very early practices of the church and were practiced in different areas of the church. We can know that neither practice had unanimous support among church leaders. So we need to let history tell us which view to take, before taking sides in our minds.

This is what I’ve tried very hard to do in my research of this issue. I started into this topic months before I reached any conclusions. I changed my mind multiple times about where the evidence pointed. Though I started out as a credobaptist, I recognized that the evidence just wasn’t nearly as clear as it is in other subjects. I almost concluded that infant baptism was correct. Then I recognized that the Scriptural arguments for infant baptism failed, while the Scriptural arguments for believers’ baptism continued to make sense.

I’m not saying that every rational individual will end up agreeing with me. I’m only recommending that anyone studying this issue wouldn’t assume their view as default. If we do, we are unlikely to come to know the truth about this issue.

The first century of the church taught believers’ baptism

In this article, we’ll start by looking at the earliest evidence on the subject of infant baptism, and we’ll continue in a more or less chronological order. This section will argue that the first century of the church probably taught believers’ baptism. Here are the points that suggest this to be true:

  1. For the first century or so of the church, there’s complete silence about infant baptism (AD 33-133+).
  2. They often speak of baptism, both to Christians and non-Christians, and they speak of it in terms of believers’ baptism. Examples of those baptized are consistently believers.
  3. This is the time period during which it was taught that children were innocent. The main argument for infant baptism in the early church was that infants had to be cleansed, so it’s not surprising that the two beliefs went hand in hand.

None of these points, by itself, could prove that this era of Christianity did not normatively practice infant baptism. However, when you take these three points all together, they do definitely point in one direction—an early normative practice of believers’ baptism.

What they said about baptism

In this section, I’ll show why points 1 and 2 above are true—the first century or so of church spoke of baptism in terms of believers and were remarkably silent on infant baptism. Following are the early passages that appear to be clearest about whether infants could be baptized.

The Didache (first century):

But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before. (7.4)

If the baptized individuals were expected to fast, it’s unlikely that they were infants or even little children.

The Epistle of Barnabas says,

Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time: then He declares, I will recompense them. . . . we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. (11)

Barnabas (probably not the same person who knew the apostle Paul) appears to assume that those who are baptized first “plac[e] their trust in the cross,” and that they are “full of sins and defilement” before baptism. This doesn’t fit infant baptism, especially given the belief that infants were innocent.

Hermas, in the Shepherd of Hermas, assumes those baptized had past sins:1Hermas may have believed that there was no repentance from sin after baptism. However, that doesn’t affect his assumption that those who are baptized have repented.

And I said, “I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins.” He said to me, “That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin any more, but to live in purity. (2.4.3)

Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, assumes that those who are baptized believe, fast, and repent of former sins:

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. . . .

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe (1.61)

Theophilus (late second century) writes:

Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God. (Theophilus to Autolycus 2.16)

Here again, baptism is tied to repentance and remission of sins. Similar examples can be found in the writings of later Christians, but I will stop here, since I’m focusing on the era where the evidence is the most consistent.

It should be obvious that, if we had to rely solely on any one of these quotations from the early church, we wouldn’t have enough evidence to say conclusively whether or not the early church practiced infant baptism. In each case, we could assume that they were just simplifying the doctrine of baptism and not mentioning the fact that infants were also baptized for different reasons.

However, taken all together, the evidence is very strong. There is no clear evidence at all from this era for infant baptism. We have multiple voices that all demonstrate that those who are baptized exhibit characteristics of adult repentance—and not a single one of them thinks it’s worth mentioning that infants could also be baptized.

Did the early fathers simply have no reason to mention infant baptism?

Some have argued that the reason infant baptism isn’t mentioned for the first century of the church is that the early Christians never had occasion to mention it. They were writing in an evangelistic and apologetic context, not describing what Christians should do. However, this is just not true.

First, the early Christians often mentioned baptism in writings addressed to Christians as well as non-Christians. In fact, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, quoted above, were written to Christians.

Second, it would appear to still be relevant to non-Christians whether infants should be baptized or not. It wouldn’t perhaps be surprising if Christians didn’t often bring up the subject to non-Christians, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they did, either.

And finally, it doesn’t appear that these writers are simply neglecting to mention infant baptism, but that they are speaking of baptism in such a way as would contradict infant baptism. They provide positive evidence for credobaptism, not simply negative evidence against paedobaptism.

What if we lost some sources?

A paedobaptist could argue that infants were baptized, but we simply don’t have enough sources from this time period, so that’s why we have no mention of infant baptism. The trouble with this view is that, besides the New Testament, we do have quite a few sources from the first centuries of the church. We have many mentions of baptism, and the earliest ones all appear to point to credobaptism. Furthermore, it’s important to note that it’s not just that we have no evidence for paedobaptism. We actually have positive evidence for credobaptism from this time period.

What they said about the innocence of children

In this section, I’ll demonstrate point 3 above—early on, Christianity taught that infants and children were innocent. Following are some of the earliest teachings on the subject.

The Epistle of Barnabas says,

Since, therefore, having renewed us by the remission of our sins, He hath made us after another pattern, [it is His purpose] that we should possess the soul of children, inasmuch as He has created us anew by His Spirit. (6)

Hermas writes, in the Shepherd of Hermas,

they are as infant children, in whose hearts no evil originates; nor did they know what wickedness is, but always remained as children. Such accordingly, without doubt, dwell in the kingdom of God, because they defiled in nothing the commandments of God; but they remained like children all the days of their life in the same mind. All of you, then, who shall remain stedfast, and be as children, without doing evil, will be more honoured than all who have been previously mentioned; for all infants are honourable before God, and are the first persons with Him. Blessed, then, are ye who put away wickedness from yourselves, and put on innocence. (3.9.29)

Aristides of Athens (an apologist in the first half of second century):

And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. (Aristides, Apology 15)

Although the first century of the church appears to have been unanimous on this subject, and although there were later teachers who taught similarly, not all later teachers agreed. The belief arose that humans are born with an Adamic nature that can be washed off in baptism, and eventually it was taught that infants actually inherit guilt from Adam’s original sin.

While we certainly receive a human nature that has a tendency to sin, this is not a good reason for infant baptism. First, this view doesn’t actually represent what Scripture says the meaning of baptism is—salvation through the remission of sins. Babies do not need forgiveness of or remission of sins.

But as to the claim that infant baptism washes off the Adamic nature, it’s manifest that unbaptized children do not behave better than baptized children, as though that tendency to sin was taken away. Nor is this even what we experience in baptism as adults, since even after baptism, we still need to die to ourselves constantly.

Instead, this theory appears to be a justification after the fact of infant baptism, trying to reconcile the innocence of children with washing them of sin.

When did infants begin to be baptized?

So for the first period of the church’s history, all we have evidence for is believers’ baptism. Furthermore, it appears that we have evidence for that as opposed to infant baptism.

However, both paedobaptists and credobaptists agree that, at some point, infant baptism did occur. Thus, as I pointed out earlier, the evidence for the existence of infant baptism after this time period isn’t evidence for either view.

Still, I believe the evidence after this time period is important enough to look at. How so? Because it is routinely used as knock-down evidence for the paedobaptist position.

So this section will be a brief discussion of the earliest evidence that infant baptism was occurring. I will present it with a view to showing why it is consistent with believers’ baptism. It’s even possible that it fits better with believers’ baptism than with infant baptism. But since it is not clear enough to show either way, I’m not resting my argument on anything in this section.

In this section, I will show that

  • There may have been some infants who were baptized by the year 180, but the evidence between 180 and 230 is not clear at all.
  • None of the evidence suggests that anyone was proposing a practice of baptizing all infants until 235.

Irenaeus

The trouble is that, before the first clear evidence of infant baptism, we have several pieces of evidence that may or may not be evidence for it, depending on how we evaluate them. However, I want to cover these pieces of evidence, since they are useful for a broader understanding of the history surrounding infant baptism.

The first potential evidence for the occurrence of infant baptism is around 180 and is from the book Against Heresies by Irenaeus. Irenaeus writes,

Being a Master, therefore, He [Jesus] also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself—all, I say, who through Him are born again to God [renascuntur in Deum]—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age . . . (2.22.4)

This translator, believing that Irenaeus is referring to infant baptism, translates the Latin phrase “renascuntur in Deum” as “born again to God.” This is a very reasonable interpretation; however, it is by no means the only one.

My understanding is that the word “renascuntur,” though it literally means “reborn,” is not the word typically linked with baptism. Instead, Irenaeus may have been speaking of a different kind of new life that came to all mankind through Jesus’ incarnation. Kurt Aland, himself a proponent of infant baptism, argues that

It does not seem apparent to me that Irenaeus has baptism in view here, and certainly there is no thought of infant baptism; he is concerned solely with the fact that Jesus sanctified all humanity in that he was made like all, lived through all ages of life and was an example to all . . . Nothing more than this is presupposed; nothing more than this is stated; therefore nothing more than this should be sought from it. (Did the Early Church Baptize Infants 59)

For more information on this view, see David Bercot’s series on infant baptism. But what we should consider is that Irenaeus wrote originally in Greek. This is a Latin translation of his text, and, as the introduction to this text in the Ante-Nicene Fathers notes,

Irenæus, even in the original Greek, is often a very obscure writer. At times he expresses himself with remarkable clearness and terseness; but, upon the whole, his style is very involved and prolix. And the Latin version adds to these difficulties of the original, by being itself of the most barbarous character. In fact, it is often necessary to make a conjectural re-translation of it into Greek, in order to obtain some inkling of what the author wrote. Dodwell supposes this Latin version to have been made about the end of the fourth century; but as Tertullian seems to have used it, we must rather place it in the beginning of the third. Its author is unknown, but he was certainly little qualified for his task. We have endeavoured to give as close and accurate a translation of the work as possible, but there are not a few passages in which a guess can only be made as to the probable meaning.

I am not a Latin scholar myself, but this seems to me an important reason for not letting too much weigh on one indirect statement that doesn’t seem to be corroborated elsewhere.

However, I can’t rule out in my mind that Irenaeus was speaking of baptism. It’s hard to see how the phrase “in Deum”—“to God” would refer to all of humanity, even unbaptized. So I’ve chosen to assume, for the sake of the argument, that this is a mention of infant baptism. That’s why I’ve only claimed that the first evidence of infant baptism is in the late second century. As I mentioned, the first clear evidence only appears in the mid third century. But I want to ensure that I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to the other side.

What’s the most that the paedobaptist could argue from this quote?

So let’s suppose that this refers to infant baptism. Where does that lead us? The most that the paedobaptist could get from Irenaeus is this:

  • There were infants who were baptized around the year 180.
  • Irenaeus assumed that this baptism was valid.

Note that Irenaeus doesn’t say that people should be baptized as infants. He’s not saying that most people were baptizing their infants. Instead, if he is referring to infant baptism at all, he is simply a witness that it had been done and that he believed it to be valid.

As you can see, this is far less than the paedobaptist needs to support his argument. That’s why Irenaeus’s statement is perfectly consistent with both narratives—credobaptism and paedobaptism.

Tertullian

About twenty years after Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies, Tertullian wrote a treatise On Baptism. In this treatise, he weighs in on the practice of baptizing young children. Here, the context will help us to understand what we can learn from Tertullian.

Tertullian writes that it is important not to administer baptism too quickly:

But they whose office it is, know that baptism is not rashly to be administered. “Give to every one who beggeth thee,” has a reference of its own, appertaining especially to almsgiving. On the contrary, this precept is rather to be looked at carefully: “Give not the holy thing to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine;” and, “Lay not hands easily on any; share not other men’s sins.” If Philip so “easily” baptized the chamberlain, let us reflect that a manifest and conspicuous evidence that the Lord deemed him worthy had been interposed. [. . .] “But Paul too was, in fact, ‘speedily’ baptized:” for Simon, his host, speedily recognized him to be “an appointed vessel of election.” God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every “petition” may both deceive and be deceived.

In other words, Tertullian believes that, whenever God gave clear signs surrounding someone’s coming to Christ, it was appropriate to baptize them quickly. However, just because someone asks for baptism doesn’t mean that they are ready for baptism. But Tertullian isn’t just putting this forward as his opinion; he represents it as being consistent with what “they whose office it is,” as in bishops, presbyters, and deacons, believe. Tertullian continues,

And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary—that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood?

Tertullian writes that little children should not be baptized immediately on request. This would not only put them in danger, but also their “sponsors.” It appears that the children are young enough that their parents need to vouch for them, but their dispositions are not clearly known yet. But might they be infants? Let’s see what Tertullian says,

The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?” More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine!

In his exposition, Tertullian appears to assume that the little children he mentioned are themselves asking for baptism. He says, “Let them ‘come,’” “Why [do they] hasten,” rather than assuming that the agency is on the part of the sponsors. So it appears that the children are old enough to ask. But what do we do with the following?

Let them know how to “ask” for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given “to him that asketh.”

This could indicate that the children were infants. However, note that he seems to be applying this to all the aforementioned children, and that he is proposing to delay baptism until the applicant’s life can be examined. So his point appears to be that children don’t know what they are asking for, not that anyone was proposing to baptize children who couldn’t speak at all. This is supported by his conclusion:

For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred—in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom—until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.

To Tertullian, part of the problem is that the applicants don’t understand the meaning of baptism. So even if they are asking to be baptized, they aren’t asking for actual baptism—they don’t know its meaning yet. So there are indications that the children of whom Tertullian is speaking are old enough to ask for baptism.

So what can we learn from this passage?

  • Some Christians were advocating for the baptism of young children.
  • Church leaders seem to have agreed with Tertullian that baptism should be delayed until a person’s life can be examined.
  • Though some have tried to discredit Tertullian by arguing that he believed that no one should be baptized until full adulthood, Tertullian’s main point is that baptism should be delayed “according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual” after it has been requested, so that it is done with full understanding, not that baptism should not take place once the applicant’s life had been examined.2I’ve also heard the objection that this point doesn’t support credobaptism, since Tertullian gave reasons for credobaptism that most credobaptists today would disagree with. However, this still supports credobaptism, for two reasons: (a) it shows that there is historical precedent for not baptizing infants, and (b) some forms of credobaptism, such as the one proposed in this series of articles, are consistent with Tertullian’s objection.

How does this affect the case for or against infant baptism? It really doesn’t affect the case as I’ve laid it out in this series of articles, since I’m assuming for the sake of the argument that our first evidence of infant baptism is in AD 180. However, it is significant that it Tertullian could claim the support of church leaders for his argument here. This suggests that the baptism of young children was uncommon or discouraged in his day.

Furthermore, it’s significant that Tertullian doesn’t seem to be referring to infants. If it is true that the quote from Irenaeus isn’t about infant baptism, then we don’t even yet have evidence for its occurrence—and a similar practice may have been being opposed by church leaders.3In Tertullian’s Treatise on the Soul, probably written around this same time period, does he argue for original sin or infant baptism?

Tertullian argues that the infants of pagans, because of the superstitious practices which the pagans of those days practiced to accompany childbearing, were consecrated to demons at birth. Tertullian writes, “It was from this circumstance that the apostle said, that when either of the parents was sanctified, the children were holy; and this as much by the prerogative of the (Christian) seed as by the discipline of the institution” (39) Since the children are made holy by the sanctification of the parent, it appears that Tertullian is arguing that when the parent is baptized, the child is then saved.

However, Tertullian then argues that every human infant has a sinful nature from Adam: “Besides, he [Paul] had certainly not forgotten what the Lord had so definitively stated: ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God;’ in other words, he cannot be holy. Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; moreover, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame [. . .] There is, then, besides the evil which supervenes on the soul from the intervention of the evil spirit, an antecedent, and in a certain sense natural, evil which arises from its corrupt origin. For, as we have said before, the corruption of our nature is another nature having a god and father of its own, namely the author of (that) corruption. Still there is a portion of good in the soul, of that original, divine, and genuine good, which is its proper nature. For that which is derived from God is rather obscured than extinguished [. . .] Thus some men are very bad, and some very good; but yet the souls of all form but one genus: even in the worst there is something good, and in the best there is something bad. For God alone is without sin; and the only man without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God. [. . .] Therefore, when the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption being taken away, it beholds the light in all its brightness. It is also taken up (in its second birth) by the Holy Spirit, just as in its first birth it is embraced by the unholy spirit.” (39-41)

This could be taken as an argument for original sin and infant baptism. However, note that he has already said that children are in the “innocent period of life.” Is there a way that we can reconcile his two seemingly opposing arguments?

Yes. Note that Tertullian does not say here that children are guilty of sin, but that people, because of their “corrupt origin” tend to sin, even though they also tend to do some good as well. He connects baptism to “when the soul embraces the faith,” or a conscious choice on the part of the baptized. Apparently, his blanket statements about all men having sinned are not to say that all have sinned since birth, but at some point will sin because of the Adamic nature.

Apostolic Tradition/Hippolytus

Another source from this era is from a text known as Apostolic Tradition, and believed to have been compiled by Hippolytus. It could be as early as the early 200s, although this has been contested.

After outlining a very rigorous course of examination and training for new believers, the document says,

And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them. ⁵Then baptize the men, and last of all the women(21)

Following this, it describes what the baptized needed to say in the baptismal ceremony: “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy servants and all thy works” and then afterwards “I believe” in answer to questions about each person of the Trinity.

This document attests to the fact that little children were being baptized at this time, children who would have been too young to say, “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy servants and all thy works.” So this could indicate infants, but not necessarily. Very few children who are even six or more years old are willing to say something of that sort loudly enough for an entire congregation to hear.

No one has advocated yet for baptizing all infants

As we can see, there is clear evidence by the early 200s that some young children were being baptized, and there’s a possibility that evidence as early as 180 shows infants being baptized. Since I’ve chosen to take a very conservative stance in this article, I’m simply assuming for the sake of the argument that some infants were baptized around the year 180. For a supplemental position on this, I recommend David Bercot’s talks on this subject.

However, as of yet, we have no evidence that anyone was advocating for all infants born to Christian parents to be baptized. There is no indication that any of these three authors, or any church leader that they know of, believes that infants should be baptized—even if they believed that infants could be baptized.

Emergency baptisms

But why is it important to distinguish between whether infants could or should be baptized? Wouldn’t we just assume that if someone believed that infants may be baptized, that they would also believe that they should be baptized?

Not at all. As the next section will show, many infants and young children were baptized, not as part of a normal practice, but because the children were near death. In some cases, their parents wanted them to die having been baptized, even though they wouldn’t have ordinarily baptized the child.

I think it’s significant that for the first two centuries of the church, we have no evidence that church leaders advocated for infant baptism as a normative practice.

The evidence from tomb inscriptions

One very interesting area of evidence comes from the inscriptions on Christian tombs. Many Roman tomb inscriptions in the third and fourth centuries specify when the deceased was baptized. Everett Ferguson surveyed these inscriptions in an article.4“Inscriptions and the Origin of Infant Baptism,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 30, Part 1., April 1979 Ferguson concludes,

It is noteworthy that all of the inscriptions which mention a time of baptism place this near the time of death. The explicit inscriptional evidence is not an argument for infant baptism as the normal practice. Rather, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. The inscriptions do not tell the whole story, but as far as they go they provide an argument that in the third and fourth centuries infant baptism was abnormal. All of the above cited examples may be considered cases of ‘emergency baptism’. Death was near, and the person received baptism ‘on his death-bed’ as it were. Jeremias has pointed to the practice of the delay of baptism in the fourth century, but the third century inscriptions show the same practice. Why is baptism not mentioned except when it was administered near death? Any effort to argue from silence will be subjective. Instead of trying to fill in the silence in the archaeological record with conjectures (as has been done with the literary record), we should listen to what the existing evidence is saying. The newborn were not routinely baptized in the period of our early inscriptions. Baptism was administered before death, at whatever age. This fact offers the most plausible explanation of the origin of infant baptism. (44)

In other words, these inscriptions give examples of many people at many different ages receiving baptism soon before their deaths. Since the older people hadn’t received baptism until then, it is obvious that they hadn’t been baptized as infants. And since the infants were baptized before their deaths, that fits well with a practice of emergency baptism of infants, rather than arguing for the normative baptism of infants.

So not only does the earliest clear evidence show that church leaders didn’t prefer the baptism of young children (from Tertullian), the earliest clear evidence of the views of lay people also show that they didn’t prefer the baptism of young children.

Does the evidence between 180 and 230 favor believers’ baptism?

Before moving on to the earliest evidence for church leaders who supported infant baptism, I should make it clear what I’m arguing. I have been discussing the textual evidence from approximately 180 and 230, and it should be obvious that I believe it fits very well with the narrative of believers’ baptism.

However, remember that I am not arguing that the evidence from this time period favors believers’ baptism. In fact, the evidence from this time period is not clear enough to be decisive on either side. It is enough to note that it fits with believers’ baptism, even though it could also fit basically as well with infant baptism.

Early baptism comes into favor among church leaders around 235

So far, we’ve seen that there is a significant time period during which we have no evidence of infant baptism, and a period of about fifty years in which there were baptisms of some young children, perhaps even some infants, but there’s no evidence that church leaders encouraged it. In this section, we’ll look at the first evidence for church leaders who actually supported these practices.

These church leaders may only have been teaching emergency baptism of infants, or they might have been arguing for infant baptism as a normative practice. Either way, this fits into the credobaptist narrative, since the narrative recognizes that at some point church leaders did begin to endorse it.

These writers certainly did lay the groundwork for mandating infant baptism. But note that they didn’t condemn the practice of delaying baptism as wrong. From the archaeological evidence, we know that the practice of delaying baptism was going strong even now. However, they don’t consider those who practice it to be heretics, even if they disagree.

Origen

Origen writes somewhere around the year 235, about fifty years after Irenaeus’s quotation above. In three different works, Origen mentions that the church had a practice of baptizing young children. He offers an explanation to his hearers or readers for why the church would do this:

Christian brethren often ask a question. The passage from Scripture read today encourages me to treat it again. Little children are baptized “for the remission of sins.” Whose sins are they? When did they sin? Or how can this explanation of the baptismal washing be maintained in the case of small children, except according to the interpretation we spoke of a little earlier? “No man is clean of stain, not even if his life upon the earth had lasted but a single day.” Through the mystery of Baptism, the stains of birth are put aside. For this reason, even small children are baptized. For, “unless a man be born again of water and spirit, he will not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Origen: Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke, tr. Joseph T. Lienhard, pp. 58-9)

[H]ear David speaking, “In iniquity I was conceived and in sins my mother brought me forth,” showing that every soul which is born in flesh is polluted by the filth “of iniquity and sin”; and for this reason we can say what we already have recalled above, “No one is pure from uncleanness even if his life is only one day long.” To these things can be added the reason why it is required, since the baptism of the Church is given for the forgiveness of sins, that, according to the observance of the Church, that baptism also be given to infants; since, certainly, if there were nothing in infants that ought to pertain to forgiveness and indulgence, then the grace of baptism would appear superfluous. (Origen: Homilies on Leviticus, tr. Gary Wayne Barkley, pp. 157-8)

After all, even in the law it is commanded that sacrifices be offered for the child who was born: a pair of turtledoves or two young doves; one of which was offered for sin and the other as a burnt offering. For which sin is this one dove offered? Was a newly born child able to sin? And yet it has a sin for which sacrifices are commanded to be offered, and for which it is denied that anyone is pure, even if his life should be one day long. It has to be believed, therefore, that concerning this David also said what we recorded above, “in sins my mother conceived me.” For according to the historical narrative no sin of his mother is declared. It is on this account as well that the Church has received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were committed were aware that in everyone was sin’s innate defilement, which needed to be washed away through water and the Spirit. (Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Books 1-5, tr. Thomas P. Scheck, pp. 366-367)

As you can see, Origen recognized that baptism is for the remission or forgiveness of sins. But since the church is baptizing young children, who have done no sin, Origen concludes that some form of sin attaches itself to children through their birth. Thus, children are not free of sin that needs to be remitted or forgiven, even if they are not guilty of committing sin. To bolster this theory, he draws on Old Testament passages that later were used as evidence for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original Sin—which seems to have developed from speculations such as Origen’s.

Earlier Christians, such as Tertullian, had argued that humans inherit the fallen nature of Adam, so that all sin. But they had not argued that those who have as of yet committed no sin need the remission of sins. They had called children innocent, and in fact the model of innocence, as Christ had done. Origen is breaking ground here, ground that would lead to the doctrine of Original Sin which would then be the central support for mandating infant baptism.

Is this evidence for an apostolic practice of infant baptism?

In the last quotation above, Origen says that “the Church has received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children.” What should we conclude from this?

It’s important to note that paedobaptists often try to draw far too much from this passage. First, it isn’t clear whether Origen is arguing for the baptism of young children as a normative practice, or whether he is simply arguing that it is legitimate. Origen could be arguing for the appropriateness of emergency baptisms, and he certainly isn’t arguing that delaying baptism is not a legitimate practice of the church. However, it could be that he believes that all children of Christians should be baptized.

But back to the subject of apostolic tradition. Origen’s opinion is not good evidence for what the apostles taught. We can trust the historical evidence of the church fathers when it concerns events in their time, or even often about events that occurred in the previous generation. Furthermore, when church fathers early on in many different areas were all in agreement about a particular practice, this is legitimate evidence for an apostolic teaching, since such unity would be surprising unless it came from a belief that was widely held before their day (as travel and government support increased, this becomes less and less valuable, though).

However, when one individual, two centuries after the founding of the church, assumes something to be an apostolic tradition in spite of earlier evidence to the contrary, we can’t simply trust what his assumption. That’s the case here.

Cyprian

Before the Council of Nicaea in 325, Cyprian is probably the best evidence for infant baptism. Cyprian very clearly teaches that infant baptism is appropriate, and seems to teach that all infants should be baptized. In addition, he provides evidence that many bishops in his area of the world were of the same opinion as he was.

Let’s see what we can learn from Cyprian’s comments on infant baptism. Cyprian writes to Fidus,

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” as far as we can, we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker. [. . .] But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another. (Letter 58)

Cyprian uses the Latin term that unambiguously means “infant,” and the context verifies that he does mean infants. That’s because the issue in question is whether to baptize children at birth or on the eighth day.

The reasoning that Cyprian uses is an early form of Original Sin, similar to what Origen taught about fifteen years earlier. Cyprian believes that infants should be baptized for the remission of sins—but for the remission of someone else’s sins, not their own. This is, again, a shift from what the church originally believed, but not as extensive of a shift that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original Sin would eventually become.

However, just as Origin and the previous sources I quoted could be referring to emergency baptism, Cyprian may be as well. Around the time of this letter, AD 250, Carthage, Cyprian’s home city, was struck with a deadly plague. Cyprian may have been instituting a practice of baptizing all infants because there was a high likelihood that, otherwise, infants could die before baptism.

This is not idle speculation—there are hints in Cyprian’s letter that these were emergency baptisms. He says that “as far as we can, we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost.” It would make sense for him to have a very real concern about losing souls if infants were likely to die because of the plague. Furthermore, why would it be of such importance to baptize children before the eighth day, unless there was an immediate context of infants dying before that day?

However, whether these baptisms were emergency baptisms or simply continuing what had already become a norm for Carthage, infant baptism likely became the normative practice from then on.

Neither view was called a heresy

One thing that we could easily miss, when looking at the early church history, is the fact that both infant baptism and believers’ baptism coexisted side-by-side for hundreds of years. From the 200s to 400s, both practices existed. However, though each side always had its detractors, neither condemned the other as heretical during this period. We have excellent historical evidence for this point,5Such as Gregory of Nazianzus and the tomb inscriptions mentioned in this article and as far as I know, it isn’t under dispute.

What is perhaps most surprising to credobaptists and paedobaptists alike is the permissive attitude in the early church to both practices. Of course, we don’t know what the apostles would have thought about infant baptism, but when people, starting with Tertullian, mention the view that they are opposed to, they don’t argue that the opposite side’s position is invalid or un-Christian. Instead, they offer their reasons for their view, but accept that others are practicing differently.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t care about this issue today. Even if neither view is a heresy, everyone who weighs in on the subject agrees that one is better than the other, although they may disagree on which one is better. However, that does mean that no one can argue that one or the other was the universal practice of the church and that the opposing view is heretical. Unfortunately, many have done so, without justification.

What should we conclude?

This concludes the most relevant evidence concerning the question of infant baptism. So where is the evidence pointing?

Recall that the credobaptist argument is that the apostles taught and practiced believers’ baptism, but that infant baptism arose in the next hundred years or so, and eventually became the official position of the institutional church. On the other hand, the paedobaptist argument is that the apostles taught and practiced infant baptism, but that a practice of delaying baptism cropped up here and there throughout early church history, and may even have been the most common practice at one time, before being stamped out.

Just as we found when we surveyed the New Testament, when we survey the first two centuries of the church, we find no evidence that church leaders favored infant baptism. In fact, it is very telling that this practice is not mentioned before 180—and that multiple writers before that time period write in such a way that they appear to be assuming that infant baptism wasn’t a practice of the church.

We do start seeing some evidence for infant baptism as early as 180, although there’s no very clear evidence until 235, when Origen argues for something like infant baptism. And from archaeological evidence, we can see that infant baptism was certainly not the consistent practice of the church even until the 400s. Thus, even though the evidence after 180 isn’t conclusive either way, it fits quite well with the credobaptist narrative.

As I pointed out in my first article, since much of the evidence fits both sides, we need to focus on the evidence that only fits one side. That evidence is mostly the New Testament and also the first one or two centuries of church. Both of these areas of evidence fairly clearly support believers’ baptism.

I think this is actually something to be grateful about. In a situation of this sort, where the evidence seems so unclear, it appears that God has made the clearest evidence be the New Testament—which is, after all, where we should turn for doctrine.

For churches that focus on the teachings of “important” church fathers as a basis for their teaching, rather than focusing on the earliest practice, it’s not surprising that they would prefer to go with Origen and Cyprian against the apparent teaching of the New Testament, since there are ways of reinterpreting Scripture to fit this view. However, I think we should start with Scripture, and use the church fathers as a supplement for discovering the earliest understanding of the Scripture text, so I give more weight to the earliest practice of the church, rather than to writers who were later deemed more important.

Final Objections

In this section, I’ll discuss some potential objections to my case for believers’ baptism. These are objections that didn’t fit well into other sections, but I will address them before wrapping up.

What if it’s just fine to change the practices of the early church?

Of course, some Christians have argued that the early church was just wrong, and that we don’t need to follow the apostolic practice. However, I respond to that view in other articles.

Believers’ baptism is individualistic

I’ve heard the objection that believers’ baptism is individualistic and makes it out ourselves, while infant baptism is Christ-centered. This is just silly, since even paedobaptists support baptizing new believers, and they don’t consider this to be individualistic.

For Anabaptists, baptism is not just about one’s salvation; it is about fully giving oneself to God. By requiring a commitment, we are requiring that all applicants for baptism dedicate themselves and all they have to God. This makes our baptism fully about God, rather than merely about our status, as infant baptism would be.

Credobaptists are being exclusive; infant baptism is inclusive

Credobaptism teaches that all babies are saved and connected with Christ, without needing baptism. That’s pretty inclusive.

Infants are not atheists

I’ve also heard the argument that credobaptists think infants are born atheists, since they don’t believe in Christ. This is of course to misunderstand credobaptism entirely. We believe that infants are born not believing in any worldview. They only become Christians or atheists later on. But until they lose their innocence, this isn’t a problem, and we believe that by the time one is old enough to be responsible for sin, one is old enough to be baptized. So it’s not that babies are not ready for baptism, it’s that babies are in no need of baptism.

Conclusion

I conclude that none of these objections really works as a response to the credobaptist case. Therefore, even though this is one of the most difficult issues of early church history, I think we can be justified in practicing believers’ baptism. However, I think both sides should interact with each other charitably, recognizing that, even though one or the other is wrong, it’s understandable that in such a complex discussion, a well-intentioned individual could come to the wrong view.

  • 1
    Hermas may have believed that there was no repentance from sin after baptism. However, that doesn’t affect his assumption that those who are baptized have repented.
  • 2
    I’ve also heard the objection that this point doesn’t support credobaptism, since Tertullian gave reasons for credobaptism that most credobaptists today would disagree with. However, this still supports credobaptism, for two reasons: (a) it shows that there is historical precedent for not baptizing infants, and (b) some forms of credobaptism, such as the one proposed in this series of articles, are consistent with Tertullian’s objection.
  • 3
    In Tertullian’s Treatise on the Soul, probably written around this same time period, does he argue for original sin or infant baptism?

    Tertullian argues that the infants of pagans, because of the superstitious practices which the pagans of those days practiced to accompany childbearing, were consecrated to demons at birth. Tertullian writes, “It was from this circumstance that the apostle said, that when either of the parents was sanctified, the children were holy; and this as much by the prerogative of the (Christian) seed as by the discipline of the institution” (39) Since the children are made holy by the sanctification of the parent, it appears that Tertullian is arguing that when the parent is baptized, the child is then saved.

    However, Tertullian then argues that every human infant has a sinful nature from Adam: “Besides, he [Paul] had certainly not forgotten what the Lord had so definitively stated: ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God;’ in other words, he cannot be holy. Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; moreover, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame [. . .] There is, then, besides the evil which supervenes on the soul from the intervention of the evil spirit, an antecedent, and in a certain sense natural, evil which arises from its corrupt origin. For, as we have said before, the corruption of our nature is another nature having a god and father of its own, namely the author of (that) corruption. Still there is a portion of good in the soul, of that original, divine, and genuine good, which is its proper nature. For that which is derived from God is rather obscured than extinguished [. . .] Thus some men are very bad, and some very good; but yet the souls of all form but one genus: even in the worst there is something good, and in the best there is something bad. For God alone is without sin; and the only man without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God. [. . .] Therefore, when the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption being taken away, it beholds the light in all its brightness. It is also taken up (in its second birth) by the Holy Spirit, just as in its first birth it is embraced by the unholy spirit.” (39-41)

    This could be taken as an argument for original sin and infant baptism. However, note that he has already said that children are in the “innocent period of life.” Is there a way that we can reconcile his two seemingly opposing arguments?

    Yes. Note that Tertullian does not say here that children are guilty of sin, but that people, because of their “corrupt origin” tend to sin, even though they also tend to do some good as well. He connects baptism to “when the soul embraces the faith,” or a conscious choice on the part of the baptized. Apparently, his blanket statements about all men having sinned are not to say that all have sinned since birth, but at some point will sin because of the Adamic nature.
  • 4
    “Inscriptions and the Origin of Infant Baptism,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 30, Part 1., April 1979
  • 5
    Such as Gregory of Nazianzus and the tomb inscriptions mentioned in this article

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