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on infant baptism

This is not an ordinary article. If you are curious about infant baptism and its history and development, this is for you. If you are not, feel free to return to whatever it was you were doing. This is not an ordinary sort of article I usually post. It’s going to be long. If you’re a history nerd and want to know more, enjoy! For those willing to invest the time, may you be as encouraged by this as I am!

Last Sunday in our sermon series “Beyond Labels: Who Is New City?”, we looked at the label “baptist, not Baptist“. We saw the greater promise of the new covenant is all who are members of the new covenant will “know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest”. Every aspect of the old covenant was replaced by something far greater that the old could merely hint at in the new. The old covenant was a means by which God would dwell among his people—but only in the tabernacle and he could only be approached by the high priest on one day a year. The new covenant makes God’s people into his holy temple where they draw near to God regularly. We saw a couple weeks ago this means God enters into our gathered assembly in his fullness. The old covenant sacrifices were temporary measures that allowed God to remain among his people, but the priests stood at the altar daily, offering the same sacrifices repeatedly. When Christ offered himself, he sat down at the right hand of God. The old covenant could account for their sins but could not change them. The new covenant promise is God’s Spirit would “put his laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts”, which is the promise of regeneration. To be a member of the old covenant merely required a person was born to the right family. To be a member of the new covenant requires a person to be born again as a follower of Jesus.

Every member of the new covenant is a believer, for faith is how one enters into the covenant. For this reason we baptize men and women upon a credible profession of faith. We do not baptize infants for they do not yet know the Lord. It doesn’t take a vast knowledge of church history to recognize this has long been the minority view. If restricting baptism to professing believers is biblical and apostolic, when and why did infant baptism become the norm?

The truth is there is no firm proof that infant baptism happened prior to the late second century. Some will point to household baptisms in the book of Acts as evidence, claiming they surely must have included infants. A read through Acts suggests a different story, however. The only baptism in Acts in which all those baptized were not explicitly said to believe is the story of Lydia in Acts 16. Luke says she believed, and she was baptized, “and her household as well”. Reading infants into this narrative doesn’t seem to be warranted by either the text or the pattern throughout Acts.

In chapter 2 of Acts 3,000 believed and were baptized. In chapter 8 Simon believed and was baptized. Later in chapter 8 Philip the eunuch believed and was baptized. In chapter 9 Saul believed and was baptized. In chapter 10 the entire household of Cornelius was baptized. Luke says each one was filled with the Holy Spirit, indicating each one believed in Jesus. In chapter 16 the Philippian jailer’s entire household was baptized. Luke says they rejoiced with the jailer that he had believed, indicating they shared his new faith in Jesus. In chapter 18 we have another household baptism. Luke again says Crispus believed, “together with his entire household” and then was baptized, along with his believing household. Further, a large number of Corinthians believed and were baptized. In chapter 19 a group who had been disciples of John the Baptist believed the gospel of Jesus and were baptized.

It is clear, then, that other than Lydia’s household, in every case where someone was baptized, including entire households, Luke explicitly says they believed in the Lord Jesus. If Luke meant that infants and young children were baptized on the basis of Lydia’s faith, surely he would have recognized the discrepancy and sought to explain it! Instead of reading infants into the Lydia story, it makes more sense to recognize the pattern through the book of Acts that upon profession of faith, one was baptized, even in the one case it was not specifically indicated. Lydia believed and so did her household, and on the basis of their faith in Jesus, they were all baptized.

In early church writings outside of Scripture, baptism is spoken of in this way. Almost immediately Christians began writing church orders and liturgies for worship. In the Didache, believed by many scholars to have been written as early as the year 50—around the time Paul planted the church in Corinth—there are instructions for baptism. Even if it weren’t that early, it was certainly written in the first century. The Didache’s instructions for baptism include things about the method and the water to be used. It says the one being baptized should fast prior to the baptism and should be instructed in the faith before baptism. All of the earliest liturgies for baptism assumed the one being baptized could speak and reason for him or herself. David F. Wright, a Patristics (Church Fathers) scholar and committed Scottish Presbyterian who argued for infant baptism theologically said this:

All the available evidence indicates that the early baptism rites were originally established to cater solely for those able to speak for themselves, and were only slowly and sometimes awkwardly adapted to infant (baby) subjects.

David F. Wright, “Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective”, p. 6

The adaptations began in the late second century. When the baptism of infants and children too young to speak for themselves began to be included in liturgies it was still assumed to be believers’ baptism, for a sponsor was to answer the questions regarding faith on behalf of the child. In his “On the Apostolic Tradition”, Hippolytus gives instructions for baptism. Those being baptized were to verbally renounce Satan and all his evil works. The person then was asked if he or she believed what eventually became the Apostles’ Creed. Only when a person responded by saying, “I believe”, was he or she baptized. What about those who cannot respond? Hippolytus writes,

With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves, their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family, should speak.

Hippolytus, “On the Apostolic Tradition”, 21.4

It isn’t hard to see the awkward way in which little children were accommodated. This is because the practice slowly developed and was not received from the apostles, despite the name of Hippolytus’ work.
Because baptism had been for believers, they began to include professions of faith on behalf of the child, for this was a new practice. Even the Roman Catholic Catechism recognizes this problem.

The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole “households” received baptism, infants may also have been baptized.

Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, §1252

Notice the hedging: “it is quite possible” that it’s apostolic, but there is only explicit evidence from the second century. Everett Ferguson, another Patristics scholar, wrote a massive work called “Baptism in the Early Church” in which he examines all the evidence, including archaeological evidence such as tombstones. He wrote,

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century.

Everett Ferguson, “Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries”, p. 856

The first author who wrote specifically of the baptism of infants and young children was Tertullian, a North African theologian. He responded to the claim that Jesus said of little children, “Let them come”. His response? Then let them come, and when they come in faith, baptize them.

The practice of infant baptism seems to have begun in North Africa, which is why Tertullian is the first to write about it. Why did it begin? One thing is clear: arguments for infant baptism have always followed the practice. That is, they have justified the practice after the practice had begun. In his massive work Ferguson says this:

The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Everett Ferguson, “Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries”, p. 857

Some of the evidence he cites is the large number of tombstones that have survived from that era. In every case in the first 300 years in which an infant or a young child was baptized, the child died shortly after baptism. We have not found any tombstones from that era that indicates a child was born, baptized say, a year later, then lived for 50 years. Why would the church baptize a young child that was sick and believed to be dying? They baptized a child to assure the parents of the child’s salvation. Because baptism was so closely associated with salvation, elders in the early North African church would baptize a dying child so as to better care for the child and for the parents. From this it is clear that baptism of infants was not a routine practice. Such emergency baptisms of young children had grown and spread beyond North Africa over the ensuing centuries but even by the early fourth century it was not the routine practice of Christians. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his lecture “On Holy Baptism”, wrote this of young children:

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, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.

Gregory Nazianzus, “On Holy Baptism”, Oration 40 §28

Even by the fourth century, Christian parents were not having their children baptized as a matter of course. Gregory goes on in that lecture to state how much better it is for the child to grow to understand the nature of baptism and of following Christ before being baptized. Throughout the fourth century—believed by many church historians to be the golden age of church history—numerous Christians born to Christian parents had not been baptized as infants or even as young children. Consider these figures listed by David Wright as having been born to Christian parents but baptized after profession of faith: Ambrose and his brother Satyrus, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus and his siblings, Basil the Great, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ephraem of Syria, and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote of his mother, praising her for his godly upbring but never criticized her for failing to baptize him as an infant or a young child. John Chrysostom wrote a treatise called “The Right Way For Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in the late fourth century but never mentions baptism. David Wright’s observation here is telling:

From their ranks came that distinguished bevy of theologians, bishops, church statesmen, monastic leaders, biblical scholars, and preachers who constituted “the golden age of the church Fathers” as early church historians once had no qualms in calling it. Nor did they find fault with their godly parents for not having had them baptised at birth, nor even evince their awareness that their parents had not done something that they might have done—no awareness, that is, that there had been a baby-baptism available to them at their parents’ discretion.

David F. Wright, “Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective”, p. 117

Bear in mind that Wright was a committed Presbyterian and argued for infant baptism theologically, yet was clear one could not argue for it historically. The historical evidence does not support the practice.

He nails the real issue when he writes:

The question, then, is whether children belong to the covenant community.

David F. Wright, “Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective”, p. 117

This is the question. If children of believers are in the new covenant, then they should be baptized. If they are not, then baptism should be restricted to those with a credible profession of faith. The author of Hebrews is clear: we have received a better priest with a better ministry for a better covenant with better promises. The great advance in the new covenant is this: “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

As we saw on Sunday, it is when a person believes and is baptized that God unites that person with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, even if the baptism were out of order. God is not limited by space and time and even if a baptism in the name of the Trinity occurred prior to faith, upon believing in Jesus God acts in and through that baptism, making it a Christian baptism.

I am very encouraged by this. It reminds us that God is the one who acts in salvation. We are not saved by right theology. We are not saved by right practice. We are not saved because we properly administer baptism or communion or our worship style is “the right one”. We are not saved because we’ve managed to figure out the best way to be a church. No. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—determined to save his people and has acted to bring about this very salvation. We stumble along in faith as we try to follow him, but the burden of our salvation is on his divine shoulders. We seek to be faithful to him and his word, while being informed by church history, yet our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ granted to us by faith.

As I write this it is very likely my first grandchild will be born today. I feel the pull of those early North African believers who desired assurance their children would be saved if something terrible happened. Rather than place our faith in baptism, we should trust in the Lord who saves. We should trust in his goodness, in his grace and mercy. Baptism is important but God is the Savior, the one in whom we trust.