Was Infant Baptism Practiced in Early Christianity?

by Matthew Pinson

Traditionally, advocates of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) say that its practice dates back to the apostles. Yet there is no proof for this assertion. No clear evidence for infant baptism exists before the third century. Even Augustine’s statement that infant baptism was a “firmly established custom” in the church is off the mark. As late as the time of Augustine’s writings in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, many church fathers either didn’t practice infant baptism or did not themselves receive baptism until they were adults. It was not until after Augustine’s death in the fifth century that one could call infant baptism a firmly established custom.

In understanding this question, we need to talk about two things: First, we must discuss what caused infant baptism to take root in the third century and become general practice by the fifth century. Second, we must establish that infant baptism was not the practice of the early Christians from the time of the apostles to the third century.

Yet before we do these two things, we must take note of the main idea that seems to be driving the paedobaptist argument from history: If infant baptism was a late addition, then why was there no controversy over its introduction into the churches? The answer to this question is twofold: First, there is no clear evidence of infant baptism before the third century, and the paedobaptist must face this. No amount of discussion about why infant baptism came on the scene with little recorded opposition obscures the fact that believer’s baptism is the clear practice before the third century—and infant baptism is not. Second, Tertullian did speak out against the introduction of infant baptism, which we will discuss in a moment.

Now, why was infant baptism introduced in the third century? There are two things here that we must discuss: first, the catechumen system, and the second, the question of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration. The catechumen system was in place as early as the second century. In this system, people would undergo a period of instruction after conversion and before baptism. The early church fathers placed so much emphasis on one’s being instructed in the faith prior to baptism that most converts underwent months or years of catechetical instruction before their baptism.

Many of the best-known church fathers underwent such catechesis and didn’t receive baptism until adulthood, even though they were born to Christian parents. These included, among others, such men as Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine himself [1]. If infant baptism had been a custom since the time of the apostles, surely these men would have been baptized before adulthood. Yet these men were products of the catechumen system. They were catachumens who underwent instruction in the faith for many years before being admitted to baptism.

So, given this background, how did infant baptism come to displace the catechumen system? It is simply this: People began to believe the erroneous doctrines of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration, and soon they became widespread in the churches.

Now we must deal with the question, what proof is there that, before the third century, baptism was administered only to believers and not to infants? [2] The best place to start is in early second-century Christianity. Every reference to baptism we find in second-century Christianity reflects confession of faith as an essential qualification for baptism [3].

The earliest and best second-century source on believer’s baptism is the Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” A.D. 100-110). This document goes into more detail on baptism than any other second-century treatment. The Didache not only establishes moral qualifications for the one who is about to undergo baptism but also requires the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two [4].

Paul K. Jewett asks, “How shall we account for the omission of all reference to infant baptism in this primitive manual of proper baptismal usage? It is hard to imagine such an omission occurring under the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or even Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational auspices. . . . Is it not, then, highly implausible that the Didache was produced by a community of early Paedobaptists who just happened to say nothing about infant baptism?” [5].

All other references to baptism in the second century yield the same results. Paedobaptists have long tried to misconstrue Justin Martyr as teaching infant baptism when he speaks of “many men and women, sixty or seventy years old, who from children were disciples of Christ” [6]. Yet no Baptist would deny that if a child is mature enough to be a “disciple of Christ”—and is one—then he can be admitted to baptism. Far from supporting infant baptism, Justin’s comment supports disciple’s baptism.

Many paedobaptist authors, such as Joachim Jeremias, have said that Irenaeus believed in infant baptism, because of a statement he made (c. A.D. 180) that through Christ people of all ages are reborn, including infants [7]. However, as Everett Ferguson argues, “Before rushing to accept a reference to infant baptism here, we should be cautious.” Ferguson argues that Irenaeus uses the term “reborn” (renascor) for “Jesus’ work of renewal and rejuvenation effected by his birth and resurrection without any reference to baptism. . . . The coming of Jesus brought a second beginning to the whole human race. He sanctified every age of life. Accepting his renovation by being baptized is another matter and falls outside the purview of this passage” [8]. This is the standard baptistic interpretation articulated by authors such as Hezekiah Harvey and Paul King Jewett. Yet this view of Irenaeus is also shared by paedobaptists such as Kurt Aland [9].

As we move into the early third century, we find Tertullian, who wrote the first full treatise on baptism, De baptismo. Strongly favoring the catechumen system, he believed that people should delay baptism until they have been instructed in the faith for a long while: “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. . . . The Lord indeed says: ‘Forbid them not to come unto me,’ Matt. xix. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins?” [10] This passage shows that Tertullian is against infant baptism precisely because he is for believer’s baptism.

Baptists, of course, agree that infant baptism took root in the third century. Such church fathers as Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine approved of it. Yet Origen was defensive about it, saying that infant baptism “is a thing causing frequent inquires among the brethren” [11]. This statement works against the paedobaptists’ argument that no one protested the gradual introduction of infant baptism.

There is no direct evidence for the assertion that infant baptism was practiced in the first two centuries of the Christian church. On the contrary, all the evidence establishes believers as the only fit subjects for baptism prior to the third century. When placed alongside the New Testament data on baptism, this demonstrates that apostolic baptism was for believers only.

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[1] Hezekiah Harvey, The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1879; repr. Rochester, NY: Backus, 1982), 211; A. W. Argyle, “Baptism in the Early Christian Centuries,” in Christian Baptism, ed . A. Gilmore (Chicago: Judson, 1959), 187, 202-03, 208.

[2] For one of the best succinct treatments of the early Christian view of baptism, see Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). 13-43. See also Steven McKinion, “Baptism in the Patristic Writings,” in Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1006), 163-88.

[3] See, e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 120-130), which advocates the baptism of believers only: “We go down into the water full of sins and foulness and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit” (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Apostolic Fathers, I, 121). Obviously, infants are unable to exhibit this type of behavior. Another example is found in the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the mid-second century. Hermas makes repentance a condition of baptism (Jewett, 40).

[4] “But before baptism, let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any also that are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before” Didache, 7.1).

[5] Jewett, 40-41.

[6] Quoted in Harvey, 202.

[7] Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 73.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 308.

[9] Harvey, 203-04; Jewett, 25-27; Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 58-59. For an early Baptist treatment of Irenaeus similar to this one, see John Gill, Infant Baptism a Part and Pillar of Popery (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 22-23. See also “The Baptismal Question in the Light of Scripture and Church History,” Freewill Baptist Quarterly 26 (1859), which asks, “If infant baptism was practiced by Christ and his apostles, and in the first and second centuries, is it not passing strange that our Pedobaptist friends can find no proof thereof but this passage of Irenaeus,which, after all, says not a word about baptism?” (128).

[10] Tertullian, Tertullian’s Treatises: Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism, trans. Alexander Souter (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 69.

[11] Quoted in Jewett, 30.

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