"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The History of Infant Baptism: Who started it?


When looking at the issue of infant baptism, the historicity of the practice is one of great speculation. Many Baptists historians have said the practice arose in the third century and then engulfed the church shortly thereafter. The question of when it started is an important one, for if it was not a practice of the early church and one that was invented or arose later, then it should be rejected.

The first exposure in the English Bible to the word “baptize” is in the Gospels, when we see John the Baptizer in the Jordan performing some Jewish cleansing ritual. Some might be tempted to speculate that Baptism began here. However, if one looks at the Greek Translation of the Jewish Bible (used by the apostles and the early church to read the Old Testament) the word appears there as well. Such a use can be seen in Leviticus 14:6, where the priest is given instructions to take two doves, kill one, and then dip the other dove in the blood of the first bird. Besides being a striking picture of the coming atonement in Christ, this action is called dipping or baptso (the root of baptismo - Baptism).

Later, in Jewish practice, baptism became a normal part of worship. Later, according to the Talmud, it became a ritual associated with proselyte initiation. The confessor Gentiles would be circumcised (if male) and undergo a washing ritual (the Talmud calls baptism). Why mention this in a post on the history of infant baptism? Because if the convert had any children, males over 13-years old and females over 12 would speak for themselves if they wanted to convert. If they were under that age, the father spoke for them and the males were circumcised and both the females and the males underwent baptism. Thus, the history of infant baptism starts BEFORE the New Testament. [so, when educating the Jews on baptism, they would have to be told to stop baptizing infants, not to start]

During the New Testament period, the Christians adopted baptism from Judaism. In regards to infant baptism, no statement as blatant as “and this infant so-and-so was baptized” occurs. However, many “household” baptisms occur in the book of Acts (such as Acts 16:15) and the word for household οἶκος includes any children and infants of the family (even in the same book of Acts in 7:20).

After the time of the New Testament, in the Early Church baptism always had a close identification with circumcision. (as it does in Paul in Col 2:11) The first recorded instance we have of a local synod addressing the timing of baptism is in Carthage in the early 200s. But it did not debate the efficacy of infant baptism, for that was assumed, instead the debate was over how some wanted baptism preformed even sooner. Many Christians were waiting until the 8th day, like circumcision in the OT, and the synod gave parents permission to baptize sooner if they wished. (Pelikan, Christian Tradition Vol 1. Pg 290-292)

But what is our earliest reference? Origen was baptized as an infant in 185AD. We also have liturgies detailing the practice of baptism near Rome in “On the Apostolic Tradition” that attempts to detail the practices of the church for posterity as they were practiced in the time of the apostles and the apostles’ followers. The later parts of the book have a “late date” (conservative scholars like to date things at their latest possible date) of 215, which is the part that gives instructions on prayer and the like. However, the early part of the book all scholars who have worked on the syntax and sources believe is older, perhaps conservatively the late 100s. The manual instructs the elder to ask the person seeking baptism to speak to their faith for themselves. But “you are to baptize the little ones…those who cannot speak for themselves, their parents or someone who belongs to their family should speak for them.” (Apostolic Tradition - Chapter 21)

Here are the hard questions to ask if infant baptism was not the consistent practice of the church in the first three centuries (really, the first 15 centuries, but let’s just focus on the early church first):

1. The church was not afraid to debate doctrine on everything from Christ’s person to Scripture canon. If a new practice arose that the apostles did not practice, why is there no record of any debate on the subject?

2. The practice of infant baptism was universal geographically. This would mean the practice would have a starting point and then spread quickly between the time of the apostle John’s death (90AD) to the time of Origen’s birth (185AD), being the most silent and fastest spreading heresy of any heresy faced in the early church.

3. Why did infant baptism stop (for it existed in Judaism) and then start again with no statement of either the stopping of the practice in the New Testament or the starting of it in the historical record?

14 comments:

Aaron said...

I would not so sure on this nor would I want your case to hindge on it. I know you are being trained to say "thus saith the Lord" but sometimes it is not that clear and clearly until the time of Augustine it was NOT universal. Augustine fought to make it and the Eucharist for infants universal, but many were still encouraged to wait. (I am not saying the eucharist connection must be there, just adding to the history)

"Baptist Theologian" Erasmus on Romans 5:15 -"Paul does not seem to treat about infants - It was not yet the custom for infants to be batized.

This practice seemed to start gaining real ground when their was fear of illness. Even then it was discourage unless there was an illness so that the child could remember and have some understanding. Age 3 was metioned somewhere.
Anyway I should not argue with an expert I am just saying that arguement seems to come from a lot of silence.

Gegory Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople 4th century held the opinion that they should not be baptized until age 3 unless there was danger.

Hey the Reformed take on infant Baptism is better then the rest, I will give you that.

Aaron said...

Aruments from silence can go both ways. It could be there was no need for debate until Tertullian who saw it creeping in and oposed it.

I once heard a Catholic make the same case for a host of Catholic pratices. Arugments form silence are tricky.

ANYWAY I asked to know where you were coming from. Now I do. You hold that it was common practice form NT on. Got it.

Aaron said...

lots of typos.. sorry

CMWoodall said...

re:
for if it was not a practice of the early church and one that was invented or arose later, then it should be rejected.



really? that pretty much rules out all of Protestantism...
and much of Catholicism...

Jared Nelson said...

Yes, I would prefer the view of tradition of Eastern Orthodox or Reformed/Lutherans that sees tradition as a commentary on Scripture and an authority in interpretation, not in declaration. (i.e. the error of Roman Catholicism) The Scripture is the only final authority, tradition is interpretation not an authority in faith like Scripture.

The Early Church accepted infant baptism because it was the practice of the apostles. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Hippolytus all testify that the practice was the apostles' practice, and I trust them as an early witness. The Early Church are authorities able to decree new pronouncements equal to the Scripture, and I trust them as authorities of their own time rather than those looking back like Erasmus or Menno.

Jared Nelson said...

Delay in baptism was over a confussion over repentence (whether you could be forgiven the same sin twice). Gregory and Tertullian allowed delay but not rebaptism as they held that infant baptism was valid, but wanted to wait to let the child "get their sinning out" since they could only be forgiven once. This was a minority position, and nowhere near modern Baptist ideas of on profession only, symbol-only and re-baptism was rejected (as unscriptural - Eph 4:5)

M. Jay Bennett said...

Good stuff Jared. I foresee you will become a powerful Sith. :-)

Les Prouty said...

Jared, good post. Very helpful, and correct, I might add.

I found you via Jay Bennett, and you are now in my Google reader.

Andrew said...

Justin Martyr
"As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast 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 of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt. 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]" (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).

Baptismal Regeneration, that's the tradition of the early church. Thus if you're going to argue against believers baptism from tradition, good luck arguing for a 'symbolic' baptism.

After all if the church was wrong for 1600 years about justification, why not baptism?

So you can't shake Spurgeon and Judson that easy

Aaron said...

Interesting stuff. I do not find the case convincing enough to change personally. I also am tired of being pummeled as pretty nearly the only believer's baptism guy engaged in this. You all seem to think your case is air tight. That annoys me a great deal but what will be will be. And if I could make a career out of doubting my conclusions I would be a millionaire. Probably just my personality. There is much to respect in the Baptist tradition. I will sound like my pastor when I say I loved Reformed thought and lament that the respect does not go both ways.

Jared Nelson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wesley said...

Andrew, actually you make a good point, yet I feel compelled to say if one could prove baptismal regeneration as the standard doctrine for the 2 generations after the apostles with little or no debate about it. then I think I also would have to accept it as the proper interpretation of scripture.

But on another point, if the Church was wrong about justification for 1600 years, then was there no Church for 1600 years or can a Church exsist without believing in Justification by faith alone?

I don't think the Reformers ever went this far, they believed they were restring ancient practice, not reviving it after 1500+ years of apostasy.

Jared Nelson said...

I think you would have to specify what the early church meant by regeneration. They do not mean what Calvin meant by it, but perhaps what Luther meant by it, which I think would better be expressed in our language as ingrafting.

Seems the early church had a lot of different ideas about what baptism actually did. Being Reformed, of course, I think this is due to their lack of distinction between the outward sign and the inward reality. The two are closely linked, and so I do not fault the early church their language on baptism with their limited theological language. (neither does the Westminster: Ch 27, ii)

Michelle Weed said...

I am working really hard at trying to see baptism in a new light (having grown up baptist and no attending an anglican church). My question is, what did the early church believe about the moment of conversion/salvation. Did they believe that baptism was the moment of justification? Did they believe that an infant was brought from sin and eternal condemnation to life everlasting when they were baptized? if so, could they then grow up to reject christ and "lose" this salvation?? How does this relate to the baptist understanding of "once saved always saved"?