Does early church history support believers baptism or infant baptism?

Discussion in 'Baptism' started by pslagle2012, Oct 4, 2017.

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  1. pslagle2012

    pslagle2012 Puritan Board Freshman

    my wife is a baptist and I am Presbyterian. She recently asked me what form of baptism is supported in the first centuries of the church.
  2. Scott Bushey

    Scott Bushey Puritanboard Commissioner


    “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]).

    “‘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]” (Fragment34 [A.D. 190]).


    “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]).


    “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]).

    “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

    “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]).

    “If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (ibid., 64:5).

    Gregory of Nazianz

    “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]).

    “‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” (ibid., 40:28).

    John Chrysostom

    “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]).


    “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 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]).

    “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]).

    “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]).

    Council of Carthage V

    Item: It seemed good that whenever there were not found reliable witnesses who could testify that without any doubt they [abandoned children] were baptized and when the children themselves were not, on account of their tender age, able to answer concerning the giving of the sacraments to them, all such children should be baptized without scruple, lest a hesitation should deprive them of the cleansing of the sacraments. This was urged by the [North African] legates, our brethren, since they redeem many such [abandoned children] from the barbarians” (Canon 7 [A.D. 401]).

    Council of Mileum II

    “[W]hoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or say that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration . . . let him be anathema [excommunicated]. Since what the apostle [Paul] says, ‘Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so passed to all men, in whom all have sinned’ [Rom. 5:12], must not be understood otherwise than the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration” (Canon 3 [A.D. 416]).
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  3. Joshua

    Joshua Administrator Staff Member

  4. pslagle2012

    pslagle2012 Puritan Board Freshman

    Wow, very helpful. Thank you!

  5. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    Were they teaching though in some fashion sacramental regeneration?
  6. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    Some were, some weren't, but that's not what he was asking. He asked if the early church supported infant baptism. They did, regardless of what theology they imputed to it.
  7. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    Two points though, its what the scriptures state to us, not what the ECF did, and if they attributed salvation in rite itself, that was dead wrong.
  8. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    And none of that is what the OP asked.
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  9. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    True, as I was just trying to see why we would go to the ECF for any theology in this area though.
  10. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    Because The Holy Spirit was given to the church and we should honor those who've gone before, even if they are wrong (and they often were). We wouldn't ignore ECF on the Trinity. Otherwise, would have to say that the Church fell until the Kentucky Revivals when it got going again.
  11. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    Good point, as there is indeed Historical theology to account for in the Church, but think that we can do either extreme here, as we can totally ignore what they stated, or accept them as being as authoritative as the scriptures themselves.
  12. Gforce9

    Gforce9 Puritan Board Junior

    I believe Jacob has suggested the right course: take what is good and learn from the rest. It was those men who gave us Nicea and Chalcedon, both of which are indispensable, despite what some tv "preachers" believe and teach....
  13. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    Either way, at the end of the day, Scripture supports infant baptism. Historical Theology merely backs that up from the earliest of church history. Anyone who says otherwise is dead wrong [see what I did there :deadhorse::book2:].
  14. koenig

    koenig Puritan Board Freshman

    I've only seen it through secondary sources, but there was one early council that had to deliberate whether baptism should be done on the eighth day (to parallel circumcision)...or even sooner than that.
  15. Herald

    Herald Administrator Staff Member

    Patrick, may I recommend a book, written by paedobaptist authors, that refute that paedobaptism was normative during the patristic age. The book is "Baptism In the Early Church" by Hendrick F. Stander and Johannes P. Louw. It was assigned reading for a patristics course I took. This book will help provide a balanced view of baptism during the patristic age.

    In the final chapter of their work, Stander and Louw write, "In the first four centuries of Christianity, the literature on baptism clearly shows how, in the majority of instances, it was persons of responsible age (generally adults and grown children) who were recipients of baptism."

    Also, in the same concluding chapter the authors write, "It would also be wrong to assume that adults were baptized up to a certain point in time, and that infant baptism was then instituted. The patristic literature discussed in this book represents data, clearly showing that the age of a person as such was not an issue. It was a matter of confessing personal belief, and understanding what baptism meant."

    The book looks into the view of Aristides, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, and Novatian et al. The purpose of the book is to write a treatise on baptism during the patristic age that is not a denominational polemic, but rather, a dispassionate treatment of the subject.

    Happy reading!
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  16. Panegyric

    Panegyric Puritan Board Freshman

    Not to engage in too much of a tit-for-tat-type-of-thing, but technically that is not what he asked, though he may well have intended it, or even now wish that that was what he asked, since I believe that based on the quotes, the answer to what he did ask is contrary to the answer to whether the early church supported infant baptism.

    The question is, "Does early church history support infant baptism or believer's baptism?", and is an attempt to get at the answer to his wife's question, "what form of baptism is supported in [by?] the first centuries of the church?"

    Given how the question is worded, if the early church only justifies infant baptism on a sacramental basis that all of the Reformed churches reject for scriptural reasons, then it must be acknowledged that early church history may not support infant baptism, as the theology motivating its practice is not sustainable from scripture according to all parties to this argument. And thus, though I disagree with him almost every time, I think David's comments are a quite reasonable rebuttal to mere citations of infant baptisms occurring.

    Like I said, not super interested in jumping further down the rabbit hole of this thread, I know nothing of the fathers' practice. Enjoy. :augustine:
  17. Held Fast

    Held Fast Puritan Board Freshman

    It is always dangerous to treat descriptive language as prescriptive; while the ECF got many things "right" we can only say that through the backwards looking lens that was ground and polished by conversations about the many things they got wrong.
  18. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    The church miltant is full of chronological snobbery, as if those that came before us were not also as illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we moderns are today. We interpret Scripture in a community of saints, not as isolated Lone Rangers with "Just Me and My Bible" bumper stickers.

    When I struggle with understanding some point of doctrine, I find it prudent to "check in" with the saints that have come before me. I am not arguing for nose counting here, rather the wisdom of examining the old paths that have been well trodden by others. Beware the lure of being in the minority, for it appeals to our vanity. When I find myself in that position, I take great care to examine myself and the words of others before I dare declare I have it all correct and everyone else is misinformed.

    That said, as to the ECF specifically, we can learn from them, including the many ways in which they erred such that we do nor repeat their mistakes. Take Calvin's advice about their limited usefulness to heart:

    "I will bring forth only three examples: the corruption of our nature and the miserable servitude of the soul under the tyranny of the flesh; the free justification; and the Sacrifice of Christ. These are things only touched upon obscurely in the books of the very ancient Doctors. One cannot draw from them anything certain on these things. Pernicious errors regarding free will, the merits of works, and propitiation since then have surfaced. The questions we deal with today among so many people were not at all addressed by these advocates and intercessors. In that time, no one had yet installed Priests who offer Christ to the Father for the reconciliation of the world. And Satan well and closely twists the good Doctors in these indecent questions, and by the method of certain dreaming fanatics scattered from one side to another, the ancient Doctors, in refuting these things, became so engrossed that they gave less heed to the principal points. And because of all the errors that distort their writings from one side to another, they are now for the most part out of bounds, and we can only partially receive fruit from their books."​

    SRC: “Response to a Certain Tricky Middler” (Responsio Ad Versipellem Quendam Mediatorem, [French] “Response a Un Certain Moyenneur Rusé,”), The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012) 259, (RV Bottomly translation).]
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  19. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    You comment was irenic and made in a gracious spirit. Now, with all due respect, this comment:
    may just as easily be worded to rebut a present-day exclusive-believer-baptism contention: that the early church provides the proper evidence for a continuation of what he believes to be the NT doctrine and practice.

    If the erroneously answered question, "Why baptize?" completely vitiates any recognition of the practice, if it be shown that baptism of all ages was justified by the early church on a sacramental basis, which basis is denied by either of our Confessions for scriptural reasons, then no appeal to the early church could be made whatsoever as corroboration of any baptism (being drawn from Scripture, and not from tradition).

    You can't make a special pleading for believer's-baptism, based on nothing but the (alleged exclusive) presence of the rite in the NT, if the point is to discredit a practice by showing its theological basis is faulty. By that rubric, the majority of adult baptisms by the time early-church writings appear would also appear to be non-meaningful, because the theological basis there is also faulty.

    If, indeed, the inquiry was meant to ask something other than, "Does the record we have give us reason to think the early church practiced IB (along with AB); or does it consistently and exclusively refer to individual-professor's baptism?" then it's not clear to me from the OP.

    Every side in this modern contention has to reckon with the history of rapid decline of the theology of baptism (and sacraments in general) in the early church. Based on what continued from the apostles, and considering what might have been added or lost, and trying to judge the wheat from the chaff in terms of the residual teaching including what the ECFs thought about the past--we compare the NT data together with what we believe is the faithful modern expression, to that ancient effort at a faithful expression.
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  20. Panegyric

    Panegyric Puritan Board Freshman

    Bruce I appreciate your thoughtful post. As I stated earlier, being ignorant of the church father's practice, I have no desire to be drawn into a discussion about what it was. But, I particularly enjoyed this segment of your post. You are quite right of course, my logic requires me to be ready to reject examples of professor-baptism which are justified by faulty theology just as well as infants.

    If this severely limits the usefulness of the early church, I must retort that I know of no other way to make use of church history. How are we to be sharpened by historical theology without critical examination? Of course, this is what you advocated at the end of your post…

    I wonder if Acts 19:1ff has any bearing on our discussion. Admittedly, it is a stretch, but the question I am bringing to that text is, "How does theological justification affect the validity of a practice?"
  21. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    My understanding would be that the Scriptures actually would support that one can either be infant or believer water baptized, but believers would be the preferred route to go.
  22. Doulos McKenzie

    Doulos McKenzie Puritan Board Freshman

    cool. But this has nothing to do with the OP.
  23. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    I was just addressing that assumption concerning what mode of baptism was supported only, but will stay in the Op and not cause any derailment further.
  24. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    So they would agree that water baptism was done in the beginning of the Church, and for some time forward, as believers baptism?
  25. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    Side Note to Dachaser - you can multi-quote different people or different quotes in one post. The multiposting is somewhat unneeded. Would you please try to post once in response to all the quotes you want to respond to or ask a Moderator how to do multi-quoting? Thanks.
  26. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    I do think that we all need to be wise and know the historical theology of the Church, as we were built in many ways upon those who came before us, but was just suggesting that at times some tend to see the ECF, and for that matter the reformers themselves, as being authoritative in their theology, and almost on par with sacred scriptures.
  27. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Your reply to the observation that the EC practiced IB, and itself alleges even more ancient/apostolic support for it, could be to acknowledge that you're under no prior obligation to accept those writers' claims, even as you concede the presence of the practice.

    The fact of EC IB creates further questions, since it is possible to conceive various paths possibly taken from the apostolic church to the earliest records post-NT. The typical Baptist position is that IB practice itself is an exhibit of decline, that poor theology likely produced what they see is an aberration borne of "expediency." Whereas, a standard Reformed position is that the church continued to exhibit their inherited practice of baptizing professors and their households (including infants), while losing track of baptism's foundation, adding benefits to it, and updating their theology of baptism to "spruce it up."

    Both sides judge the available evidence. As one who accepts the practice of IB as biblical, I don't accept EC baptismal theology uncritically myself, because I think that era exhibits declension in this, as in other, theological departments. It is not the case that either side is left with an "all or nothing." Malpractice of adult professor's baptism does no more ipso facto invalidate a Baptist's appeal to its continuation, than misplacing the foundation of infant baptism invalidates the Reformed (or Lutheran, or Anglican, etc.) appeal to its continuation.

    I don't think Act.19 can help much, here. I'm aware of another active thread on that subject, but for my part I don't think the situations are analogous. Besides the disputed meaning of the text (does v5 continue Paul's descriptive speech? or was v5 an act of Holy Spirit? or were these men baptized by water under Paul's supervision?) there the subject is the gospel church enfolding a hitherto ungospelled group. I'll keep my own counsel interpreting what took place and why. But if they were formerly baptized with baptism admittedly Christian, then I think it doubtful Paul's company did any active baptism, but only the "laying on of hands," v6.
  28. Panegyric

    Panegyric Puritan Board Freshman

    Dear Bruce, I don't think I have much to add to your comments. I fear I have derailed the thread far enough. My intentions were merely to provide a little bit of room for David's comments, and anyone else who felt the need to be critical of the theological foundations of the early church's practice. I hoped to show that answering the OP requires broadly that the question, "How should historical theology be used in determining what we should do?" must be answered, and that citations are an inadequate answer to that question. I feel I've done my duty. You have brought far more careful criticism to this data than I certainly could. As a relative newcomer to all things theology, and as one uninformed on patristic practice, I don't feel I have anything to add to the matter of the thread. I appreciate your nuance in analyzing these things, and especially your ability to provide what I consider a fair summary of each side's position.

    As to Acts 19, my intention was actually to contradict myself a little, by pointing to what appears to be a case where the practice was considered valid even though it was misunderstood by the subjects. I fear that my posts have been interpreted in this thread as supporting one answer or another to the question, "Does early church history support believers baptism or infant baptism?" But that was not my intent. I don't know the answer to the question, nor would I even hazard a guess.
  29. Herald

    Herald Administrator Staff Member

    David. no. Water baptism was already established during the time of the ECF (Early Church Fathers) and the Patristic Age. The authors made the point that the most practiced form of baptism during the Patristic Age. As the Patristic Age waned, paedobaptism became dominant. I am not sure whether credo or paedobaptists can claim an "upper hand" in the baptism debate just because of the practice of the early church. There was an abundance of mixture and error during the period.
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