Module 7 | Post-apostolic evidence of infant baptism in early church practice
Now, we’ll consider that infant baptism was practiced as early as the patristic period, which was the time of the early church shortly after the New Testament was written. Patristics or patrology is the study of the early Christian writers who came to be known as “the Church Fathers.” The period is generally considered to run from the end of the Apostolic Age, circa A.D. 100, also known as the New Testament period, to either A.D. 451, the date of the Council of Chalcedon, or to the 8th-century Second Council of Nicaea.
Out of a consideration for the need to systematically build a case from “Scripture alone” up to this point, it seems appropriate to now quote John Calvin:
“Everyone must now see that paedobaptism, which receives such strong support from Scripture, is by no means of human invention. Nor is there anything plausible in the objection, that we nowhere read of even one infant having been baptized by the hands of the apostles. For although this is not expressly narrated by the evangelists, yet as they are not expressly excluded when mention is made of any baptized family (Acts 16:15, 32), what man of sense will argue from this that they were not baptized? If such kinds of argument were good, it would be necessary, in like manner, to interdict women from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were ever admitted to it in the days of the apostles. But here we are contented with the rule of faith. For when we reflect on the nature of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, we easily judge who the persons are to whom the use of it is to be communicated. The same we observe in the case of baptism. For, attending to the end for which it was instituted, we clearly perceive that it is not less applicable to children than to those of more advanced years, and that, therefore, they cannot be deprived of it without manifest fraud to the will of its divine Author. The assertion which they disseminate among the common people, that a long series of years elapsed after the resurrection of Christ, during which paedobaptism was unknown, is a shameful falsehood, since there is no writer, however ancient, who does not trace its origin to the days of the apostles.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 16, section 8, trans. Henry Beveridge)
It is this last sentence by Calvin that I’ll seek to corroborate in this module. Allusions and indirect references to infant baptism may be found in Polycarp (69–155), Justin Martyr (100–165), and Irenaeus (130–202). Cyprian (c. 200–258) also lent support to the practice.
Berkhof offered this recap:
“The earliest historical reference to infant baptism is found in writings of the last half of the second century. The Didache speaks of adult, but not of infant baptism; and while Justin makes mention of women who became disciples of Christ from childhood (ek paidon), this passage does not mention baptism, and ek paidon does not necessarily mean infancy. … The Council of Carthage (A.D. 253) takes infant baptism for granted and discusses simply the question, whether they may be baptized before the eighth day. From the second century on, infant baptism is regularly recognized, though it was sometimes neglected in practice. Augustine inferred from the fact that it was generally practiced by the Church throughout the world in spite of the fact that it was not instituted in Councils, that it was in all probability settled by the authority of the apostles. Its legitimacy was not denied until the days of the Reformation, when the Anabaptists opposed it.” (Systematic Theology, pp. 543-544)
Iranaeus, the Greek cleric and bishop of Lugdunum, alluded to baptism while speaking of Christ in his work Against Heresies:
“He came to save through means of Himself all who through Him are born again unto God, infants, and little children, and boys, and youths, and old men.” (Adversus Haereses, Book II, Chapter 22, section 4)
Per scholars such as Berkhov and Fesko, we must keep in mind that in this early context, the church Fathers all in some measure closely associated baptism with regeneration, often attributing cleansing power to the water. Thus, though this ancient passage doesn’t explicitly mention baptism, it is generally regarded as the earliest reference to infant baptism as church practice.
More explicitly, Tertullian (c. A.D. 155–240), the prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, wrote the first book on baptism, aptly titled On Baptism. While he contended for delayed baptism, he acknowledged the general practice of infant baptism:
“God’s good pleasure sends as herald its own privileges: any request can both disappoint and be disappointed: It follows that deferment of baptism is more profitable, in accordance with each person’s character and attitude, and even age: and especially so as regards children.” (De Baptismo, c. XVIII)
Origen of Alexandria (c. A.D. 184–253), also an influential and prolific early Christian theologian and Hellenistic scholar, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, argued for the apostolic foundation of infant baptism, even though he connected it with original sin:
“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.” (Commentaria in Epistolam ad Romanos, Book 5, chapter 9, trans. Thomas P. Scheck)
And also in Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus:
“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.” (Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley)
Hippolytus of Rome (c. A.D. 170–235) one of the most notable 3rd-century theologians in the Christian church in Rome, later listed instructions for carrying out baptism in his manual Apostolic Tradition:
“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.” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16, trans. Burton Scott Easton)
Dr. Sproul has summed up the historical evidence this way:
“… it would naturally be assumed in the early church that infants were to be given the sign of the covenant. History bears witness to this assumption. The first direct mention of infant baptism is around the middle of the second century A.D. What is noteworthy about this reference is that it assumes infant baptism to be the universal practice of the church. If infant baptism were not the practice of the first-century church, how and why did this departure from orthodoxy happen so fast and so pervasively? Not only was the spread rapid and universal, the extant literature from that time does not reflect any controversy concerning the issue.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p. 228)
None of the patristic information is presented herein to show the early Church Fathers agreed with each other on the biblical meaning and purpose of baptism. The point is that these excerpts are evidence that infant baptism is not a recent innovation in church history, however it is the practice of the church from antiquity.
Dr. John Tweeddale, Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College, explains, “The upshot is that there is remarkable consensus in the early church on the practice of infant baptism. But there is less clarity on the meaning of baptism. Yet we should not be surprised by this fact. The history of doctrine is progressive. It usually takes a controversy for the church to define what the Bible teaches on a subject. In the case of baptism, we find greater clarity on the relationship of baptism to the doctrine of salvation in the Reformation.”