Is Infant Baptism the Ancient Practice of the Church?

June 12th, 2013 Post by

surprised-babyWe 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.






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  1. Matthew Mills
    June 12th, 2013 at 13:01 | #1

    Wipf and Stock has reprinted Joachim Jeremias’ “Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries.” Jeremias may not be a paragon of Confessional Theology, but the book is solid and well worth a read.

  2. June 12th, 2013 at 13:57 | #2

    @Matthew Mills #1
    Matthew, how does that book compare with “Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries” by Everett Ferguson – http://www.amazon.com/Baptism-Early-Church-Theology-Centuries/dp/0802827489/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371063367&sr=8-1&keywords=baptism+early+church ?

  3. Matthew Mills
    June 12th, 2013 at 14:19 | #3

    @Matthew Mills #1
    I can only recommend the two Jeremias books, as I haven’t read the Ferguson book, but the Jeremias one is way skinnier (though there is a good sequel “The Origins of Infant Baptism.”) These books came out of a running debate between Dr. Jeremias and Dr. Kurt Aland in the 1960’s. Comparing the Ferguson TOC, and my memory: Jeremias doesn’t do much w/ pagan history, or the theology of baptism (his question is what did the church do, not what should the church have done, or why did they do it) and he stops a century earlier. He does have some archeology rolled in that seems to be missing from Ferguson though (funerary monuments). I originally ran down the Jeremias book as it was extensively quoted in Andrew Das’ little “Baptized into God’s Family” book.
    Is the Ferguson book any good?

  4. Rev. Roger D. Sterle
    June 12th, 2013 at 16:12 | #4

    Don’t forget Dr. Scaer’s book on the same subject.

  5. Rev. Stephen Schumacher
    June 12th, 2013 at 16:17 | #5

    The whole household of Stephanas (I Cor. 1:16) was also baptized.

  6. Keith Schweitzer
    June 12th, 2013 at 18:19 | #6

    Everett Ferguson along with Wayne Jackson are theologians in the Campbellite Church of Christ. They argue that the Acts 2:38-39 passage does not allow for “children” to include infants. That it is to be understood as referring to one’s ancestry or posterity. They also argue that Peter calls for repentance before baptism in verse 38. They claim repentance is absolutely necessary for baptism to be efficacious. This is one of the five steps required for salvation as is taught by the Campbellite Church of Christ. Visit http://www.gbntv.org to watch Church of Christ television.

  7. Matthew Mills
    June 12th, 2013 at 18:36 | #7

    @Keith Schweitzer #6
    Another reason to stick w/ Dr. Jeremias. “Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries” is a very good book, and the conclusion is that infant baptism was the Apostolic practice, and fully consistent w/ the Scriptures. A quick read, but plenty of history, Greek and archeology to back it up. $12 on Amazon, and if any Confessional Lutheran hates it, I’ll buy them a beer the next time they’re in Anchorage and listen to their reasons. (The Das book is a good one for any Baptist Aunts you might have, or perhaps your daughter’s Evangelical boyfriend. I haven’t read the Scaer Infant Baptism book, but I haven’t found a book of his that wasn’t both fun and solid.)

  8. Carl H
    June 13th, 2013 at 04:20 | #8

    From the main post:
    “Augustine makes it clear that infant baptism in indeed the ancient practice…”

    It is not very clear from the Augustine quote provided, however. There the claim is made but not substantiated.

    That prominent leaders of the early church spoke for the practice of infant baptism does not in itself address the question of whether the practice itself is consistent with the Lord’s command and will for his church. Errors were already present in apostolic times. Do we nevertheless assume those ancient times were less prone to error and therefore say, “We baptize infants because the early church did”? Rather, it is the scriptural testimony that we stand on.

    From the main post:
    “Hippolytus of Rome (third century) speaks directly” to the objection that infants cannot speak for themselves.

    If all he says is, “let their parents or other relatives speak for them,” has he really addressed the nature of the objection? His response, rather, seems only to beg the question. If a child cannot express his own faith, how can anyone else accurately represent it?

    From the main post:
    We claim in our Lutheran Confessions that “The Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ” (LC IV, 49).

    The reasoning provided in the Large Catechism: “That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from His own work, namely, that God sanctifies many of them…. But if God did not accept the baptism of infants, He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them….”

    Question: Might God, in his mercy and forbearance, choose to overlook an error in practice and give the Holy Ghost nevertheless?

  9. helen
    June 13th, 2013 at 07:34 | #9

    @Carl H #8
    Question: Might God, in his mercy and forbearance, choose to overlook an error in practice and give the Holy Ghost nevertheless?

    “give the Holy Ghost nevertheless?” God can of course do anything, but we believe He works through means, among them baptism.

    Jesus Himself took the littlest children to Him and blessed them, and rebuked the disciples who didn’t want Him to be bothered. If He wanted to bless them in person, why wouldn’t He want them to have the blessing of baptism which He commanded for “all people”?

    So we remember Jesus’s practice, we baptize early and teach infants from the cradle, beginning with the songs with which we put them to sleep.

    We can hope that God will forgive [not "overlook"] a lot of things in the repentant Christian. Let’s not make failure to baptize one of them. Children do not always live to “the age of understanding” even now.

  10. John
    June 13th, 2013 at 10:38 | #10

    Infant baptism is a flash point in Christianity. To those who are opposed to it I ask the question: Is God’s grace to us only as efficacious as our understanding of it? I’ve actually had one person tell me that they could not believe in it because it doesn’t make sense to them. If that’s the standard, how could anyone be a Christian? I’m reminded of Luther’s quote about reason being the greatest enemy that faith has.

  11. Rev. Michael Piper
    June 13th, 2013 at 12:03 | #11

    Question: Might God, in his mercy and forbearance, choose to overlook an error in practice and give the Holy Ghost nevertheless?

    Take a look at Acts 10:47 where the Holy Spirit fell on the household of the Gentile Cornelius and his close friends. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” These, among whom children were included, received the Holy Spirit through the Word and then baptism.

    Chemitz in His Examine (pg 67-8) quotes Augustine: “which shed lights on this question whether the sacraments are superfluous. These are his words: ‘It could seem superfluous in Cornelius and his friends that they should also be baptized with water, when the gift of the Holy Spirit was already in them, which was otherwise none except baptized persons received, as the Holy Scripture testifies. Nevertheless they were baptized. And this was done by apostolic authority, so that now no one should, because of some progress of the inner man, if perhaps before baptism he has progressed to spiritual understanding by means of a pious heart, despise the sacrament; it is administered bodily through the office of ministers, but through it God works the consecration of man spiritually. Nor do I believe that the duty of baptizing was assigned to John for any other purpose than that the Lord Himself, who had given it, since He did not scorn to receive the baptism of a servant, might dedicate the way of humility with which He Himself would baptize should be esteemed. For as a most experienced physician of eternal salvation He saw that some would be puffed up with pride, who because they had so far progressed in understanding of the truth and in good morals, would not hesitate in the least to set themselves, so far as life and learning are concerned, above many baptized persons and would believe it was superfluous for themselves to be baptized, because they believed that they had come to that condition of mind to which many baptized persons were still trying to rise.’ Thus says Augustine.”

    Peace

  12. Matthew Mills
    June 13th, 2013 at 13:14 | #12

    @Rev. Michael Piper #11
    The “withhold” in this verse is “kolyo” which also appears in the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36, and the Baptism of Jesus in Matt 3:14. Interestingly enough, it’s the same word used for Jesus’ “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them” (Matt 19:14, Mk 10:14, Luke 18:16.) Am I streatching Pastor?

  13. Rev. Michael Piper
    June 14th, 2013 at 10:14 | #13

    Can you pin κωλυω to baptism? Kωλυω and διακωλυω are used 17 times in the N.T. of a variety of applications (including a couple of duplicates between the gospels). Just a few examples: Forbidding the payment of tribute to Caesar (Lk 23:2) , forbidding speaking to the Gentiles (1 Th 2:16), forbidding to marry (1 Ti 4:3), withstanding God (Acts 11:17), withholding your cloak from someone in need. (Lk 6:29), forbidding spekaing in tongues, (1 Co 14:26) etc. The word seems to be seems to be all over the place.

    Was Peter thinking of the baptism of Christ, the story of the Ethiopian Eunic, or the hindering of the little children? It would be great if the connection could be made. Can you say absolutely? I don’t think so.

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