One of my friend asked me a question about infant baptism, I have given an instant reply that Infant baptism contradicts the sound teachings of Scripture, just for some back up I have gone through the writings of early church fathers, I was really shocked to see the overwhelming evidence to support the practice of infant baptism in first four centuries. Here is the debate between two great scholars on infant baptism and its final conclusions.
This study will examine both the prevalence and the theology of infant baptism before 400 C.E. with particular attention paid to the differences in the understanding of the sacrament between the eastern and western churches. I will conclude that infant baptism was an encouraged practice throughout the first four centuries of Christian history, though the postponement of baptism became a common problem in the decades following the official recognition of the church in the fourth century. Still, while infant baptism was common practice in both East and West, the interpretations given the rite show different emphases. The West tended to understand infant baptism primarily in legal terms, as a cleansing of original guilt, while in the East the sacrament was interpreted in more covenantal terms as an ingrafting into Christ for Divine blessing and empowerment. I will conclude briefly with some observations about the classical Protestant understanding of infant baptism.
But before analyzing the theology of the rite, we first must answer the question of its antiquity. Did the earliest Christians baptize their infants, or was that practice a novelty, introduced only in the third century and not considered normative within the Christian community until the end of the fourth century?
PART I. The Prevalence of Infant Baptism: The Jeremias-Aland Debate Revisited
This question of the prevalence of infant baptism in the early church has most recently been the object of intense scholarly debate in the interchange that took place between 1958 and 1963 between two respected German scholars, Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland.
1. Jeremias’ Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries
The debate was inaugurated by Jeremias, Professor of Theology at the University of Göttingen, with his 1958 volume Die Kindertaufe in den ersten vier Jahrhunderten, translated into English two years later as Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries. Jeremias begins his presentation with the New Testament and its cultural milieu and works forward toward the fourth century, arguing first for the admission to Christian baptism of the children of proselytes alongside their parents. Jeremias notes in particular the family solidarity in the ancient world, so different from modern Western notions of individualism, noting also the infant baptism of Gentile proselytes to Judaism from the first century B.C.E. onward, the initiation of infants into mystery religions, the household baptisms in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16), as well as funerary inscriptions of Christian infants indicating that they had been baptized.
Jeremias continues his reasoning by arguing further for the baptism of Christian children born to Christian parents in the first two centuries. He focuses his discussion on three New Testament passages, conservatively suggesting that Paul’s statement about the child of a believer being considered holy (agia) in 1 Corinthians 7:14 derives from the child’s birth to a believing parent rather than to its baptism, but suggesting that baptism is not precluded by its holy status. Jeremias next analyzes Acts 21:21, suggesting (in the context of Paul’s principle of baptism replacing circumcision in Colossians 2:11 and in light of the practice evidenced among the Symmachians) that the Jewish Christians were both circumcising and baptizing their male infants. From Jesus’ laying of his hands on the children for blessing in Mark 10:13-16, warning no one to “forbid, hinder, or prevent” (kwluein) children from coming to him, Jeremias concludes that, at the time Mark’s gospel was written, the children of Christian parents were likely baptized in Rome.Adding to this line of evidence Origen’s statements, repeated four times, that the ancient practice not only in Egypt but throughout the East had been to baptize infants within their earliest days, Jeremias presents two epitaphs of children, each specifying that the children were baptized and of baptized parents (pisto ek pistwn).
Jeremias adds to his evidence several further arguments, proposing that, had the baptism of Christian children been regularly postponed, two classes of Christians would have developed—the baptized Christians and the unbaptized Christians—but such a distinction was not known. Further, he adds, had infant baptism been introduced as a novel practice in the second century, it certainly would have caused a significant discussion, a discussion that is not evidenced in the sources. Further, Jeremias suggests, the practice was nowhere identified as the special doctrine of a particular sect within the church, but was present everywhere in the earliest sources available.
Having argued for missionary baptism of infants and for the baptism of Christian infants in the second century, Jeremias continues his presentation with a discussion of the development of the practice in the second century. He makes use of Polycarp’s testimony to have served Christ eighty-six years, suggesting that Polycarp must have been baptized as a very small child around the year 80 C.E. in order to identify these years as ones of service to Christ. Similar evidence is taken from Polycrates, who lived in the Lord (ecwn en kurivn) sixty-five years, and from Pliny, who notes around 112 C.E. that the very young (teneri) belong to the church just as do the adults—as well as Justin Martyr, who in his First Apology (150-55 C.E.) speaks of “many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood (oi ek paideuwn emaqhteuqhsav tw cristw).”
Further indirect evidence is deduced from third century references forbidding Christian families from table fellowship with the unbaptized, again implying that Christian children were baptized. Jeremias further adds that, given his belief that baptism was “regeneration into God,” Irenaeus of Lyon about 180 could only have had baptism in mind when he spoke of “all who are born again in God, the infants, and the small children… and the mature.” Similarly, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, written down about 215 but containing information that was older, instructed that children should be baptized before adults: “First you should baptize the little ones.” All who could speak at their baptism should do so, the text continues, “but for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to their family.”
Again, Jeremias includes multiple funerary inscriptions from baptized children; those whose baptisms were delayed, he suggests, were children of unbaptized parents who received emergency baptism from the church before their deaths. Even Tertullian’s rhetoric in favor of postponing baptism was aimed at overturning an existing practice of infant baptism, Jeremias argues, indicating the rite had been practiced among North African Christian families in the second century—early evidence, given the almost complete lack of knowledge about any aspect of North African Christianity before the year 180.By 251 or 253, Jeremias observes, despite Tertullian’s efforts to reverse the practice, Cyprian and the synod at Carthage would instruct Christian parents who had been waiting until the eighth day to baptize their children to baptize them immediately instead.
But having argued that infant baptism was the normative practice among the Christians in the first three centuries, Jeremias has to deal with the presence of numerous figures born to Christian parents in the fourth century—including some of the most ardent voices for infant baptism—who postponed their baptisms to adulthood. Jeremias therefore proposes a great fourth century crisis in which the postponement of baptism among Christians became a significant threat to the church’s established tradition of infant baptism. Infant baptism was not the sole potential victim of this threat; rather, the tendency arose within the post-Constantinian church (beginning with Constantine himself!) to delay one’s repentance and baptism, at times, even until one’s deathbed. Among the increasingly large catechumenate, the children of unbaptized parents would not be baptized, and even baptized parents themselves might put off their children’s baptisms, always aware that it was easier to deal with pre-baptismal sins than with post-baptismal sins—eager to get their children safely through the temptations of youth before they should be submitted to the moral demands of the church.
Often it would take the threat of illness and death to convince Christian parents to baptize a child—such was almost the case with Augustine (born but not baptized in 354), though he recovered and Monica failed to follow through with the rite. Similarly, Jeremias observes others who failed to receive baptism as infants: Basil (born 330 but baptized at age twenty-seven); Ambrose (born 333 or 339 but baptized in 374); John Chrysostom (born 344/54 but baptized in 368/72); Jerome (born in the 340s, but baptized in 366); and Rufinus (born 345, but baptized at age twenty-five). All were raised with at least one Christian parent, Jeremias notices, yet each postponed baptism until adulthood.
Still, within Jeremias’ narrative, these individual instances all run counter to the then existing tradition of the church. And, Jeremias argues, the earliest record of the child of Christian parents not being baptized in infancy is that of Gregory of Nazianzus in the year 329. Before that date, there is no evidence of postponed baptism among Christian children. And in addition to emergency baptisms that continued to be normative for sick or dying children, Jeremias argues, the survival of infant baptism throughout this fourth century crisis is evidenced by Church Orders, decisions such as that of the Spanish Synod of Elvira (306/12), tombstone inscriptions, and other mid-fourth century texts which impress on parents the duty of having their children baptized. Indeed, Jeremias adds, Arians, Donatists, and Jewish-Christian Symmachians all continued to baptize infants throughout the fourth century, just as did the orthodox Christians. Neither Augustine nor Pelagius had ever heard of a heretic who had denounced the baptism of infantes or parvuli.
After about 365, Jeremias contends, the crisis began to be overcome with numerous authors—Optatus of Milevis, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind—citing infant baptism as the established custom, enjoining Christian parents to bring their children to baptism without delay. In 401 the imperial infant Theodosius II was baptized shortly after his birth. The crisis, as Joachim Jeremias reconstructs it, was evidenced by 329 and continued until about 365, the decades immediately following the official recognition of Christianity when countless pagans were entering the church. But Jeremias’ reconstruction of baptismal practice in the early church would soon be challenged by his fellow countryman, Kurt Aland.
Lets look at the points of Kurt Aland.
2. Aland’s Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?
In 1961, Kurt Aland, Professor of theology at the University of Münster, responded to Jeremias with a critique under the title Die Säuglingstaufe im Neuen Testament und in der Alten Kirche: Ein Antwort an Joachim Jeremias, published in English in 1963 simply as Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? In this volume, Aland constructs a very different history of infant baptism. Interpreting much the same evidence as Jeremias, Aland contends that adult baptism was normative in the early church, that infant baptism was introduced sometime around 200 C.E., but that the practice did not become normative until the end of the fourth century.
Yet, while Aland considers the same evidence as Jeremias, his methodology is opposite that of Jeremias. While Jeremias had begun with the New Testament and its cultural milieu, working forward, Aland begins with Tertullian early in the third century and works backward. If Jeremias had sought indirect evidence for infant baptism before 200, Aland will only be convinced by direct evidence. Where Jeremias asks whether evidence is compatible with infant baptism, Aland asks whether it is possible to interpret that evidence as compatible with believer’s baptism. Thus these two authors interrogate their evidence with opposite assumptions, trying to fit the data with opposite conclusions, taking the evidences in opposite order.
Aland begins his argument with a brief summary of Jeremias’ presentation of the evidence for infant baptism before 200 C.E. These first two centuries form the center of Aland’s critique. After 200, Aland relies on Tertullian and an evidently mixed practice, interpreting the numerous cases of Christian children baptized as adults in the fourth century, not as a crisis in an existing tradition of infant baptism, but as evidence that infant baptism was still a relatively uncommon innovation by the mid-fourth century. Beginning with Tertullian around 200, Aland works his way backwards, stressing at every point the lack of direct evidence for infant baptism before that time and the indirect character of Jeremias’ argument for this early period. From this, Aland postulates the existence of an age limit for baptism in the early church.
Three groups of evidence exist for infant baptism in the third century, Aland observes: the Church Order of Hippolytus, Cyprian’s synodal letter, and the writings of Origen.Cyprian cannot be denied as clear evidence, Aland acknowledges; by 250, infant baptism in North Africa was not only a church rule but a church requirement. Aland does not acknowledge Origen, however, as evidence for the prevalence of infant baptism. Had the rite truly been passed down from the apostles in an unbroken tradition, Aland argues, Origen’s polemic against those who deny the necessity of infant baptism would be superfluous. Rather, Origen is constructing a fictitious tradition in response to circles—evidently large circles, to provoke Origen’s attention—which postponed the baptism of Christian children. The fact that Origen appealed to the “custom of the church” (ecclesiae observantia) does not indicate that infant baptism was the universal practice of the church, but rather that it was not. Otherwise, Origen would not have felt compelled to use his strongest possible argument.
Aland similarly reverses the “face value” significance of Hippolytus’ Church Order. Aland first suggests that the sections of the text dealing with the baptism of children could be interpolations, though he offers no external evidence or textual tradition to indicate that this is the case. Rather, he simply notes that the sections before and after the portion on infants deal with adults.Next, Aland argues that the Apostolic Tradition, by its very nature as a Church Order, was establishing a new practice and not, as Jeremias had argued, recording older traditions. Church Orders, Aland states, do not look backward, but forward. Hippolytus takes one no further back than Hippolytus himself, just as Origen takes one back little further than Origen himself, perhaps to the end of the second century. Similarly, Tertullian need not have been reacting to an ancient tradition of infant baptism; the practice may have been novel in his time.
Having argued that the earliest direct evidence for infant baptism demonstrates the practice no earlier than 200 C.E., Aland next turns his attention to second century patristic statements concerning infant baptism. He weighs the evidence from the Apostolic Fathers, beginning with the Didache and its baptismal instructions, which by their very nature as baptismal instructions “automatically” rule out infants and little children—since infants cannot understand instructions, let alone fast for one or two days beforehand. Likewise, Aland argues that the Shepherd of Hermas and Letter of Barnabas both rule out children as candidates for baptism, since these texts speak only of past sins being forgiven, sins children do not carry. The apologist Justin is likewise referenced as presupposing only adult baptism, since he teaches that only those convinced of the truth should be baptized.
Aland criticizes Jeremias for using Irenaeus as evidence for infant baptism. Irenaeus does speak of Christ sanctifying “all who are born again in God—infants, and children, and boys, and youth, and old men.” But Irenaeus makes this statement in a context in which he is arguing that Jesus lived through every stage of human life in order to save every stage of human life—a context Jeremias does not provide. Irenaeus need not be understood to speak of infants and children being baptized; rather, all that is affirmed is that Christ came to sanctify all humanity.And after dealing with these patristic figures, Aland turns to a lengthy analysis of Tertullian’s views on baptism, which Aland takes as normative for the early church, and in which “we catch a glimpse of the very beginnings of infant baptism in Carthage and Africa.”
At this stage in his presentation, after arguing that no direct evidence of infant baptism exists before 200, and having argued that infant baptism is excluded within texts before this time, Aland turns more directly to the question of the indirect evidence for infant baptism in the second century. Aland counters Jeremias’ use of Polycarp, Polycrates and Justin as evidence for infant baptism by introducing Clement as evidence. The First Letter of Clement, Aland points out, also speaks of those who have “walked among us from youth to old age unblameably.” Yet if written in 96 C.E., Aland argues, then those in old age (say, 60 to 70) would have been born between 26 and 36 C.E. and certainly would have been pagans. All of Jeremias’ similar references cannot be used to demonstrate infant baptism.
In addition to this line of argument, Aland examines Jeremias’ use of Christian inscriptions. Aland notes that the earliest of these inscriptions is in the third century, so they can yield no conclusive information about baptismal practice before that time, when, as previously argued, infant baptism was beginning to be introduced. And even of the inscriptions Jeremias presents, Aland continues, most demonstrate some delay of baptism after birth, proving only the emergency baptism of children and not the habitual baptism of infants.
Aland continues by proposing alternate readings of the Pauline and gospels material Jeremias uses, followed by a reinterpretation of the household baptisms in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Aland argues that Lydia could not have had young children or infants when her household (oiko) was baptized since no husband is mentioned in her account in Acts 16. Aland similarly rejects the account of the baptism of Cornelius’ household because those present were speaking in tongues, indicating a group of “like-minded adults…. Of children, or the very young, or infants there is not even a hint here.”And again, while the household of the Philippian jailer was no doubt baptized when the jailer believed, Aland reasons, there is no evidence that his house contained small children or infants.
Thus Aland concludes his response to Jeremias. Infant baptism was introduced some time around 200 C.E. and became an accepted practice within a few small circles of Christians. But over the next two centuries the practice became more common, though the original practice of adult (only) baptism remained common through most of the fourth century. Infant baptism was not a compulsory practice in much of the church until the end of the fourth century. “To this day nobody can prove an actual case of the baptism of an infant in the period before A.D. 200 on the basis of [the sources].” Indeed, Aland, argues, it was only the acceptance of the doctrine of original guilt that led to the acceptance of infant baptism on a large scale; when infants were considered innocent (witness Tertullian), there was no demand for their baptism. The doctrine of infant baptism, Aland suggests, rests on a prior acceptance of a doctrine of original guilt.
Aland’s volume did not end his debate with Jeremias. Jeremias himself took the debate one step further in 1962 with a reply of his own, Nochmals: Die Anfänge der Kindertaufe, the English edition appearing in 1963 as The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Reply to Kurt Aland.In this study, Jeremias devotes further attention to the New Testament household baptisms, critiquing arguments Jeremias considers to be “certainly the weakest in Aland’s work.” Jeremias next goes on the offense, questioning Aland’s unsupported assertion that an age limit on baptism existed in the early church.
Jeremias continues this second volume by questioning Aland’s interpretation of Tertullian and Origen as demonstrating that infant baptism was a recent innovation. Aland has not demonstrated that Tertullian is speaking against a new phenomenon, Jeremias contends, noting that Origen on multiple occasions explicitly states that infant baptism was the established custom in the churches. There was no debate evidenced by Origen over whether infants should be baptized, so much as over why infants had always been baptized.
Finally, Jeremias concludes by critiquing Aland’s mechanism for his proposed change from believer’s baptism to infant baptism: the notion that it was a response to the doctrine of original sin. Jeremias observes that Aland understands baptism to be almost exclusively a bath for the remission of sins. Jeremias argues that this picture of baptism presents a truncated view of the New Testament doctrine of baptism, which is an eschatological act in which the participant is snatched from the dominion of the devil and incorporated into the mystical body of Christ, entering the Kingdom of God, changing lordship, and receiving newness of life. Aland, Jeremias argues, has projected back onto the patristic church a view of baptism that was only just beginning to replace the older, fuller understanding. Children needed incorporation into the Kingdom of God regardless of whether they carried the guilt of original sin. Indeed, Jeremias argues, it was precisely the truncated, “magical” view of baptism as merely a washing from sin that drove Tertullian and others after him to want its postponement, even at times to one’s deathbed.
4. So DID the Early Church Baptize Infants?
In the world of publishing, Jeremias had the last word over Aland. Still, what is one to make of the debate? Which narrative more accurately reflects what we know from the patristic era—a narrative of apostolic infant baptism being challenged in a fourth century crisis, or a narrative of an ancient age limit being slowly corrupted after 200 C.E. into the baptism of infants? Much evidence points toward the former view, that espoused by Jeremias.
Certainly Jeremias presents some weak arguments, such as his use of Polycarp as evidence or infant baptism—and Aland rightly critiques Jeremias on such points. Yet Aland’s general methodology—of assuming that no infant baptism existed where direct references are absent—is flawed. Frankly, there is relatively little direct evidence of any aspect of Christian practice before 200! It was not until the church grew in size and influence that large numbers of texts survived. Aland’s volume is a lengthy argument from silence, so that his approach of working backward from Tertullian (a key accomplice in his argument from silence) leads him to reject the extensive indirect evidence that Jeremias proposes. [That Tertullian should in any sense be considered normative for patristic Christianity is itself an extremely disputable proposition!]
This rejection of all indirect evidence is itself a second flaw in Aland’s argument. Again, Aland goes to sometimes extreme lengths to explain away the indirect evidence that Jeremias presents. In short, from the earliest period for which modern historians have extensive data—the end of the second century—infant baptism is directly evidenced. For the early period for which little is known, infant baptism appears implied, for example, in Irenaeus’ mention that infants and young children were born again in God. His mention of this in a context of Christ’s having passed through all the stages of life does not negate the fact that Irenaeus said that infants were born again in God, that is, baptized. Noting, as Aland does, that the statement was made as part of a broader theological context does not automatically negate the truth of the individual statement. An infant’s being born again in God could only mean for Irenaeus its having been baptized—and (within his broader theological context) thus sanctified through Christ, who himself sanctified infancy by passing through infancy.
Yet Aland follows up on his argument from silence with special pleading, rejecting all indirect evidence—though even this rejection is a double standard, given Aland’s proposition of an age limit for patristic baptism that he nowhere “directly” demonstrates. Aland’s special pleading is particularly problematic in his dealings with Origen. Origen clearly states on numerous occasions that the universal practice of the church had always been to baptize infants, noting that this tradition had been handed down from the apostles. And these comments from Origen are almost given in passing—Origen’s context for these remarks is not a reply to those opposing infant baptism (he is not discussing baptism at all!). Rather, he appears to direct his comments toward those who were questioning the sinfulness of infants. Origen uses an evidently agreed upon practice of infant baptism to support his conviction that children were born defiled. Aland imports a foreign context and a hermeneutic of suspicion to make Origen say the exact opposite of what his comments actually demonstrate.
A third flaw in Aland’s methodology is his failure to adequately take into account the cultural milieu of Roman, Greek and Jewish antiquity. In particular, his dismissal of the possibility that children were involved in the New Testament household baptisms does not do justice to the fact that early readers would have assumed children to be involved. Gentile children were initiated into Judaism through baptism and into the mystery cults through the same initiatory rites as adults, just as male Jewish infants were circumcised on the eighth day. The father in the ancient world was the head of the household, and what applied to him applied to the whole oiko—not only the infants and small children, but the slaves and their children as well. A modern notion of individualism cannot be assumed as a context for the study of patristic baptism.
A fourth flaw with Aland’s argument, and one not developed by Jeremias, involves Aland’s identification of infant baptism as growing out of a prior notion of original guilt. As shall be seen in the last portion of this paper, the actual order of events is the reverse of what Aland proposes. Infant baptism, particularly in the fourth century, was used to justify the doctrine of original sin, not vice versa. Augustine would not appeal to a universally agreed upon belief in original guilt to solidify support for infant baptism; rather he would appeal to a universally agreed upon practice of infant baptism to encourage the acceptance of the doctrine of original guilt. And many proponents of infant baptism and the East did not believe in original guilt at all. Aland’s contention that a belief in original guilt led to the development of infant baptism is unfounded.
Yet if infant baptism was an ancient and even apostolic practice within the Christian church, another, more nuanced question arises: Was the practice obligatory? Or, rather, was the baptism of infants practiced only when an infant’s life was in danger? At least four possible options must be distinguished in seeking to describe the church’s practice:
1. Baptism of adults only was obligatory; infant baptism was prohibited.
2. Baptism of infants was permitted (emergency baptism), but was not encouraged.
3. Baptism of infants was encouraged, but its postponement was not prohibited.
4. Baptism of infants was obligatory; its postponement was prohibited.
The first of these possibilities—the one apparently proposed by Aland for the first two centuries—fails to do justice to the evidence. Indeed, no patristic author forbade the emergency baptism of dying children. The last of these four options—that Christian parents were obligated to baptize their children—is clearly the practice universally from the late fourth century onward. And, as even Aland acknowledges, it was also the universal teaching in Africa by 250, when the bishops there unanimously ordered immediate baptism of infants, rather than waiting the eight days that had been required with circumcision. Origen would also seem to indicate that the practice was normative in Egypt and much of the East by about 200.
But the fourth century saw much postponement of baptism, likely due to the assumption that post-baptismal sins were more difficult to forgive than pre-baptismal sins. In some circles, the baptism of Christian infants—while encouraged by what theological voices survive—was evidently not obligatory, or at least the obligation was not tightly enforced. This mixed practice would lead to the second and third options, above. The second possibility assumes that believer’s baptism was normative, but since of all the theologians only the rigorist Tertullian urges the postponement of baptism until adulthood, this proposal seems unlikely. Rather, it would seem that infant baptism was encouraged within the church almost everywhere, obligatory in much of the church, but briefly neglected by many in the middle of the fourth century—in the decades immediately following the official recognition of Christianity when the number of catechumens in the church dramatically increased. So having now established the prevalence of infant baptism in the first four hundred years, our focus turns to the interpretations given the rite in the East and in the West.
PART II. The Theology of Infant Baptism, East and West
To a significant extent—at least so far as the theological task is concerned—the preceding discussion has been a necessary foundation for the shorter, but perhaps more significant discussion, that follows. For the historian, the past is significant in its own rite, but for the theologian, the beginnings of Christian history have a normative quality that carries a weight of authority within the church. Were infant baptism not an apostolic and ancient practice, its interpretation would hardly carry such significance—at least (I hope) not within the world of Christian orthodoxy. So how was this rite of baptizing infants understood within the patristic era?
No single, unified interpretation of infant baptism is evident in the first four Christian centuries; indeed, what appears is a universal practice searching for a theological explanation. Still, two common theologies of infant baptism do arise, one centered in the East, the other centered in the West—though not all patristic authors fit neatly into one of these two approaches. In the East, this section will consider John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus. In the West, Cyprian and Augustine will be examined, as will Tertullian and Origen, whose views do not completely parallel the main theological developments in either the East or the West.
1. The East: Gregory of Nazianzus & John Chrysostom
In the Christian East, a tradition arose in which the baptismal theology for infants was adapted from the baptismal theology for adults, but without infant baptism being understood as a remission of sins which, in the case of children, was considered unnecessary. Numerous benefits of baptism were stressed for the infant, as with the adult, baptism being interpreted in covenantal terms as a union with Christ and all the graces that flow from him. Gregory of Nazianzus, while appearing to have some concept of original guilt, does not link that concept to his understanding of infant baptism. Rather, Gregory argues, infants dying without baptism do not carry the guilt of sins and are not punished. Indeed, they are neither punished nor glorified, having not responded in either disobedience or obedience to God and therefore not capable of either destiny.
John Chrysostom similarly assumes the innocence of newborn infants, stressing the numerous blessings of baptism beyond merely the forgiveness of sins. A comparison of Chrysostom’s exposition of the honors of baptism conferred upon adults with the benefits of baptism as received by children yields two significant differences. Chrysostom omits both the “remission of sins” and the honor of becoming “instruments of the Spirit” from his list of the benefits of baptism for infants. The child still receives the Holy Spirit at baptism, becoming a “dwelling place of the Holy Spirit,” akin to the adult benefit of becoming a temple of God, but the child does not in infancy become an agent for use by the Holy Spirit, nor is the infant forgiven of guilt. Rather, Chrysostom asserts, such infants are “sinless.” He explains: “You have seen how numerous are the gifts of baptism. Although many men think that the only gift it confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places of the Spirit.” Thus Chrysostom, following the eastern understanding of the newborn’s innocence, sees in baptism a larger covenantal significance, not the remission of sins. The infant that is baptized receives through the sacrament membership in the body of Christ, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, adoption and inheritance as a child of God, justice before God and sanctification. The theology of infant baptism in the West, however, developed along a different route.
2. The West: Cyprian & Augustine
Simultaneous to the development of this eastern understanding of infant baptism, a different understanding arose in the West, in Africa, seen in the third century with Cyprian of Carthage. This western tradition focused almost exclusively on the character of baptism as the remission of sins, using the practice of infant baptism as a key rationale for its doctrine of original guilt, a conviction that infants were born into this world receiving from Adam not only the tendency to sin themselves, but the guilt for Adam’s transgression as well. Cyprian explained the significance of a newborn’s baptism as the remission of guilt for Adam’s sin, the child itself having committed no sin. He writes, “The infant approaches that much more easily to the reception of the forgiveness of sins [in baptism] because the sins remitted are not his own, but those of another.”
Central within the development of this western theology of infant baptism was its traducianism adopted from Stoic thought, evident already in the writings of Tertullian. Within this traducian understanding, all of Adam’s progeny were present within his seed when he was expelled from the Garden, the soul being engendered and propagated from one generation to the next along with the body. Every soul exists “in Adam” until cleansed and born again “in Christ.” When Adam was expelled from the Garden, all his descendants, present in Adam’s loins, were likewise expelled, carrying with them the guilt of his transgression.
It was Augustine, in the midst of the Pelagian controversy, who so popularized this understanding of original guilt and infant baptism so as to make it the theology of the Christian West. In a sermon preached at Carthage in 413, Augustine acknowledged that all agree that infants ought to be baptized. The controversy with Pelagius was not about the practice of infant baptism, but about its theology. The Pelagians, Augustine explains, say (in terms not unlike Chrysostom) that infants are baptized for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, but not for the remission of sins or in order to be saved—a distinction between the Kingdom of God and salvation that Augustine finds arbitrary. Rather, Augustine argues, the baptism of the infant is for deliverance of the guilt of sin, which must original sin, a conclusion he echoes in his Enchiridion.
3. Other Voices: Origen & Tertullian
Yet not all patristic voices lie within these two major trajectories of doctrinal development. Origen, though writing early and in the East, nevertheless works with a doctrine of original guilt of which infant baptism is a cleansing. Indeed, within Origen’s argument, it would seem that the remission of sins is the only significant benefit of baptism. Origen comments on the newborn infant’s ceremonial purification in his Commentary on Leviticus, making use of the existing practice of infant baptism to bolster his argument for the infant’s “stain of sin and iniquity,” noting that baptism would be “superfluous” were forgiveness not needed. He writes:
He thus shows that by its birth in the flesh every soul contracts a stain of sin and iniquity…. Why should baptism for remission of sins be administered, as is the practice of the Church, even to little children? Undoubtedly, if in little children there was nothing that needs forbearance and pardon, the grace of baptism would be superfluous.
In his Commentary on Romans, Origen echoes this same argument:”No one is free from defilement, not even a day-old child. That is why there is in the Church a tradition, received from the apostles, in accordance with which baptism is conferred on little children. The guardians of the holy mysteries know that every man enters this world with a defilement which must be cleansed by water and the Spirit. That is why this body is called “body of sin,” not that the soul already has another body, a body that has sinned… but because the soul has been placed in this body of sin and humiliation”
Commenting on the Levitical proscription against touching a corpse, Origen comments, “Every man, on entering the world, contracts a blemish…. From the moment he dwells in his mother’s womb…. Every man, then, has been stained at his conception, in his father and in his mother.” Yet despite Origen’s clear conviction that the newborn infant is spiritually unclean, it is unclear whether an historical union with Adam functions for Origen as the cause of this defilement. Origen’s understanding cannot be interpreted in light of Augustine’s later tying of original guilt to Adam’s sin, but for Origen likely reflects either a premundane fall of souls or, as Origen stresses in his Commentary on Romans, the newborn soul’s union to a fallen and defiled body whose lower existence was conditioned by the Fall. Still, what is clear from Origen is his understanding of infant baptism as essentially—and perhaps exclusively—a cleansing rite for the remission of sin.
Tertullian, like Origen, falls outside the main two lines of development in the theology of infant baptism. Tertullian’s rejection of the practice is unique within the surviving history of patristic thought. Yet, to some extent, his rejection of the practice of baptizing infants flows from his combination of an eastern view of childhood innocence with a western understanding of the significance of baptism generally. As with Origen, Cyprian and Augustine, baptism for Tertullian is fundamentally a washing of sins, yet like Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, Tertullian speaks of the “innocence” of infants. Despite his articulation of a traducian understanding of the soul, Tertullian nevertheless considers infants innocent. In his treatise On Baptism, Tertullian asks, “Why should innocent infancy be in such a hurry to come to the forgiveness of sins? Let them come while they are maturing, while they are learning, while they are being taught what it is they are coming into. Let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. The juxtaposition of these two theological convictions—baptism as the forgiveness of sins and the innocence of children (together with Tertullian’s developing moral rigorism)—leads Tertullian to question the wisdom of infant baptism, thinking it more prudent to postpone the practice until it can be more effective.
PART III: Postscript—Protestantism and Infant Baptism
It has been demonstrated that two main theologies of infant baptism are already present in the first four Christian centuries, one centered in the East and one in the West. Yet within the development of this western tradition, a significant crisis took place in the sixteenth century that reopened the question of infant baptism’s significance. Within the most radical sectors of Protestantism, a move away from infant baptism would arise, claiming Tertullian as a patristic precedent. Yet the main line of Reformation thought stood in opposition to this movement, often forcefully—in Zwingli’s Zurich, for example, the earliest Anabaptists were executed by drowning for denying the validity of infant baptism. Yet looking beyond the harsh reality of religious disagreement in sixteenth century Europe, it should be noted that the magisterial reformers broke with the western tradition of linking infant baptism to the doctrine of original guilt. Luther, Calvin and others continued to espouse a doctrine of original guilt, but infant baptism was no longer understood as a cleansing from such defilement.
Indeed, the Protestant reformers stressed the positive benefits of baptism for the infant. In the words of the Puritans’ 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, the rite solemnly admits the recipient into the visible church, both signifies and seals to him participation in the covenant of grace, ingrafting into Christ, regeneration, remission of sins, and his giving up unto God to newness of life. This grace of baptism is not merely symbolic, being “not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such, whether of age or infants, as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” Further, while condemning those who neglect baptism, the Confession asserts (against twelve centuries of western development) that regeneration and salvation are possible to those dying without baptism. Thus, while key Protestant distinctives arise—such as the possibility of a disjunction in time between the efficacy of baptism and the time of its administration—the theology proposed for infant baptism by these Western Augustinians is more similar to the theology of Gregory or Chrysostom than to that of Augustine.
This paper has argued that infant baptism was the normative practice in the first four Christian centuries. Having revisited the debate between Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland in the modern era, this paper has shown key methodological errors in Aland’s argument that bring his conclusions into question. In the earliest period for which extensive records survive, it is apparent that the church baptized the children of believers as well as believers themselves. For the earlier period for which direct evidence is rarely available, substantial indirect evidence leads one to the conclusion that, given the classical cultural assumption of family solidarity under its parental head, it is unlikely that baptism was denied to the infants of Christians. This ancient practice of infant baptism, however, was interpreted differently in East and West. An eastern tradition understood infant baptism as an ingrafting into Christ and all his benefits, minus forgiveness, which was unnecessary for sinless newborns, while a western tradition understood infants as carrying the guilt of original sin, baptism being understood almost exclusively as a cleansing from original guilt.
These are the evidence on historical basis for the practice of Infant Baptism… write to me for further evidence.
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