Over the past few weeks I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking in circles about infant baptism. These discussions have only reinforced my views of its importance, but I often feel like I don’t make much sense. So I thought I’d try to outline the necessary questions to ask when thinking about infant baptism and then do a quick overview of church history on the subject. This post is in no small part derived from an post I read a while back on an Eastern Orthodox blog that I have sadly been unable to find.
- Is baptism purely symbolic? Are there any benefits bestowed besides an external commitment?
- Can children (and infants in particular) have faith?
a. What is meant by having faith?
b. What does this faith do?
- What are the earliest teachings about infant baptism?
a. Was the subject of infant baptism ignored until the Reformation?
b.Can we point to a range of years where infant baptism first came into the church if it wasn’t already there?
So let me say at the beginning I do not claim to have spent years researching this topic, nor to have a Ph.D. in Patristics. There are also a number of other good blog posts on this subject (e.g., here). But from what I can tell as early as the end of the second century and the beginning of the third we see references to infant baptism. To me this suggests that if the catholic (lowercase c) church got it wrong, then we got it wrong very early. Irenaeus, who I quote first, is from Smyrna in Asia Minor (now Izamir, Turkey) the same hometown as Polycarp who was thought by many to be a disciple of John. So if we take this all as fact, Irenaeus is just one generation removed from the disciples and quite likely a disciple of a disciple. To be fair, as early as the second century Tertullian voiced some concern about infant baptism. However, it is worth noting he never forbade it and largely seemed to be responding to the Novatian controversy. See this post here for more detail. For a purely biblical take on infant baptism I highly recommend this podcast by Pr. Jordan Cooper.
From Against Heresies A.D. 189
“He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age … [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).
From Fragment A.D. 190
“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself … seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).
The Apostolic Tradition A.D. 215
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).
Homilies on Leviticus A.D. 248
“Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin… . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).
Commentaries on Romans A.D. 248
“The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
Letters A.D. 253
“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).
Gregory of Nazianz
Oration on Holy Baptism A.D. 388
“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388]).
Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian A.D. 388
“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).
On Baptism, Against the Donatists A.D. 400
“What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400]).
The Literal Interpretation of Genesis A.D. 408
“The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).
Letters 166:8:23 A.D. 412
“Cyprian was not issuing a new decree but was keeping to the most solid belief of the Church in order to correct some who thought that infants ought not be baptized before the eighth day after their birth… . He agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born” (Letters 166:8:23 [A.D. 412]).
Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants A.D. 412
“By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive … gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants… . It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture, too… . If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this… . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412]).