Is Infant Baptism the Ancient Practice of the Church?
We claim in our Lutheran Confessions that “The Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ” (LC IV, 49). But is our claim the historic claim of the church? Has this been the consistent claim and practice of the church throughout history? Well, the overwhelming answer to both of these questions is, yes!
There are many examples found throughout the writings of the church fathers regarding the practice of baptizing infants. They didn’t just mention the practice, but talked about it constantly as something that the church was expected to be doing. Here are just a few examples (including at least one from each of the first five centuries of the church) which can be cited as evidence for such a claim:
Perhaps the best glimpse into the life of the first century church is the Acts of the Apostles. We are told in multiple places that entire households were baptized (Acts 16:15; 16:30-33). The word usually translated as “household” is οικος (lit. “home” or “house”). By implication this word means “family,” and it would certainly include any infants and children in the family as well. But perhaps the clearest example in the book of Acts is found in St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon:
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39)
Irenaeus (second century) includes infants with the term “all.” Therefore when Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Or when St. Peter preaches, “Repent and be baptized every one of you…” Irenaeus understands this to include infants, whom he specifically names when he writes:
“For (Jesus) came to save all through means of Himself—all, I say, who through Him are born again to God—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.” (ANF Vol.1, page 391 ([Against Heresies 2, XXII, 4])
Now, one objection which commonly comes up is, “But how can a child be baptized? They can’t even speak for themselves.” Well, Hippolytus of Rome (third century) speaks directly to this objection when he writes:
“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.” (Apostolic Tradition 21:16)
Indeed, the debate in the early church was not about whether the child had to be old enough to speak for himself, rather the debate was whether or not it was necessary to wait for the child to be eight days old! Fidus finds it necessary to wait until the child is eight days old, but Cyprian (third century) wants to know why we should wait so long!
“But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council…we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man…Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift…no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect to infants and newly-born persons…” (ANF Vol.5, page 353-354 [Epistle LVIII, To Fidus, On the Baptism of Infants, 2-6])
And Gregory of Nazianz (fourth century) seems to agree with Cyprian that baptism can’t be done too soon:
“Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Fearest thou the Seal (of Baptism) on account of the weakness of nature? O what a small-souled mother, and of how little faith!” NPNF2 Vol. 7, page 365 (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:17)
And Gregory goes on to say:
“Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly…”NPNF2 Vol. 7, page 370 (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:28)
And in one fell swoop we get a glimpse at both the fourth and fifth century teachings regarding the importance of baptizing infants when Augustine (fifth century) quotes Chrysostom (fourth century):
“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 Catechesis in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21)
And, again, Augustine makes it clear that infant baptism in indeed the ancient practice of the Christian Church when he writes:
“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).
So we see that it is undeniable that the historic teaching and practice of the church includes the baptizing of infants. The evidence is clear that infant baptism was the practice of the Apostles, and remained the consistent practice of the church throughout history.