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Infant Baptism

Note: Hopefully, I am always learning. Since writing this article, someone point out to me, accurately, that in both Judaism and Greek religions, whole families converted from their previous religion to their new one. If, then, this was not so with Christianity, there would be more certain and more common statements that entering Christianity was an exception. I find this argument strong, but not certain. It is well worth reading 1 Corinthians 7 in light of this argument.

Hold on tight! This little treatise on infant baptism is going to send you right to the crux of the matter and give you plenty to chew on.

I'm willing to take a stand on issues that make a difference, as I hope you can tell from other pages. On this issue, however, history testifies that good and godly people have stood on both sides of the issue and been effectively used by God.

John Wesley, for example, was spectacularly used by God, and practiced and defended infant baptism. The Anabaptists, however, who lived out a powerful restoration of the apostolic faith in the 16th century, rejected it.

I believe the Biblical evidence is questionable, but that the historical evidence testifies pretty clearly against infant baptism.

We have three things to cover:

  • What do we know and not know about the apostles and infant baptism?
  • When do we know the Church was baptizing infants?
  • How do we decide if babies should be baptized?


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What Do We Know About the Apostles and Infant Baptism?

Ay, there's the rub.

We know nothing, really, about whether the apostles baptized infants. For all the arguments and the supposedly clear statements of Scripture, there is no good and certain proof that infant baptism is or is not apostolic.

We know that Paul baptized the Philippian jailer's household and Peter baptized Cornelius' household. Did that include infants? If you think you know, then you're too confident. (Sorry, but you are.)

Those opposed to infant baptism argue that only believers should be baptized. That argument is valid, but it is not conclusive. The Scriptures do talk about believing and being baptized, but that is not a strong enough argument to know that they didn't make exceptions for babies of believers.

This is especially true since Paul compares baptism to circumcision, which was done to infants. Paul called baptism the circumcision of Christ, in Col. 2:11-12. Of course, some would deny this, saying that the reference to circumcision and baptism are separate there, even though I personally think the connection is obvious.

On the other hand, the historical evidence seems to lean very strongly in the favor of those against the baptism of infants. It doesn't seem that hard to put our finger on just when the practice arose, and it is not in the apostolic age.

When Did Infant Baptism Begin in the Church

We know that pretty much all churches were baptizing infants by the mid-3rd century. Hippolytus and Origen speak rather generally of infant baptism in the couple decades before 250, and Cyprian discusses on which day infants should be baptized, not whether they should be baptized:

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 [i.e., before] the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. (Cyprian, Letter 58:2 from Ante-Nicene Fathers)

baptizing my dadInfant baptism turned upside down;
that's me (left) baptizing my dad in 2007

Before the time of Origen and Hippolytus, it's much harder to know. No one speaks clearly of infant baptism in the 2nd century, for or against. However, Justin Martyr does give a reason for baptism that absolutely precludes infant baptism, and he says that the church in Rome received it from the apostles.

This quote is from approximately A.D. 155:

And for [water baptism] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed. (Justin, First Apology 61)

Here, Justin specifically contrasts water baptism with the lack of choice that we had as children, and he says that the apostles taught that this was the very reason for water baptism.

Infant baptism can't fulfill that purpose. In fact, it's contrary to it.

It is fascinating that Justin is part of the church in Rome! It's the Roman Catholic Church that says that infant baptism was taught since the time of the apostles. They even produce quotes from "early" church fathers to support it. Yet this, the earliest quote that could be applied to infant baptism, given in the city of Rome, is ignored!

That is typical of Catholic apologists.

What about between A.D. 155 and A.D. 230 (or so)?

Well, there we have two quotes to work from. One, from Irenaeus around the year 185, certainly seems to be pro-infant baptism, and the other, from Tertullian around 210, addresses infant baptism directly and disagrees with it.

Irenaeus, c. A.D. 185:

He came to save all through means of Himself—all … who through Him are born again to God—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission … (Against Heresies II:22:4)

Note here that the term "born again" was synonymous with baptism to early Christians. That really didn't change until the time of the pietists in the 17th century. (Use the "Contact Me" button to the left if you can find a reliable, accurate reference to an original pre-17th century document that separates the term "born again" from baptism. I'd be happy to see it.)

For example, in the quote from Justin above, he mentions that "we" have been "regenerated" in the waters of baptism. "Regenerated" is just another way of saying born again.

Thus, by mentioning infants being born again, that's an almost certain reference to infant baptism from Irenaeus. I'm really never ready to make definitive statements, however, by inference. This is clear inference, but it's inference nonetheless.

Tertullian, c. A.D. 210: No inference here; he's very clear:

According to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. … The Lord does indeed say, "Do not forbid them to come to me." Let them come, then, while they are growing up! Let them "come" while they are learning, while they are learning where to come to! Let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.† Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? … Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem to have given "to him that asks." (On Baptism 18)

Well, that's clear. Tertullian was against infant baptism. Of course, this also establishes that infant baptism was being practiced in his time.

So when exactly did infant baptism begin? It's hard to know for certain, but I suspect we will not be far off if we suggest that it began in the late 2nd century, gaining widespread acceptance by the mid 3rd century.

Infants and Sin

The argument of many would be that infants need to be baptized because of original sin. The Roman Catholic idea of original sin simply does not appear in the 2nd century writings of the church, which is one more argument that infant baptism wasn't widespread until the 3rd century.

However, it is worth looking at the comments of the early Christians about infants and sin while we are touching on infant baptism.

Origen, between A.D. 225 and 250, clearly held to some idea of infants being tainted with sin:

But the prophets, who have given some wise suggestions on the subject of things produced by generation, tell us that a sacrifice for sin was offered even for newborn infants, as not being free from sin. They say, "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me;" [Ps. 51:5] also, "They are estranged from the womb;" which is followed by the singular expression, "They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies." [Ps. 58:3] (Origen, Against Celsus VII:50, c. A.D. 225)

Leilani considering infant baptismLeilani's having a hard time deciding on this issue!

These are good arguments for sin in infants, but there are answers to those who do not want to adopt a 3rd century view of the lack of innocence in infants. For example, the Scriptures also say that God has perfected praise in babes and sucklings (Ps. 8:2, LXX, as quoted by Jesus in Matt. 21:16). Also, in Ps. 58:3, one of the verses quoted by Origen, it is "the wicked" who go astray from the womb, not a general "they."

Earlier, though, I see no indication that Christians agreed with Origen. Obviously they did later, as the quotes from Cyprian indicated.

Here's Irenaeus, a half century before Origen, speaking of Herod's slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. I love Irenaeus' perspective, who feels that those children were blessed as martyrs for Christ!

He suddenly removed those children belonging to the house of David, whose happy lot it was to have been born at that time, that he might send them on before into his kingdom; He, since he was himself an infant, so arranging it that human infants should be martyrs, slain, according to the Scriptures, for the sake of Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of Judah, in the city of David. (Against Heresies III:16:4)

If that is not clear enough, he adds:

Who are they that have been saved and received the inheritance? Those, doubtless, who do believe God, and who have continued in his love … and innocent children, who have had no sense of evil. But who are they that are saved now, and receive life eternal? Is it not those who love God, and who believe his promises, and who in malice have become as little children? (ibid. IV:28:3)

This sort of thinking is typical of 2nd century writers.

How Do We Decide on Infant Baptism?

I asked a friend of mine who is spiritual and open which arguments he would give against infant baptism. His immediate response was "Why?" In other words, what do infants need?

What I asked him next was, "Well, what if it imparted some sort of grace?"

He gave a profound answer. It stopped me in my tracks.

"Well, I guess we'd have to find out, wouldn't we?" he began. "Someone needs to go compare how many children baptized as infants continued on with God as adults versus how many continued with Christ who did not receive infant baptism."

True. In fact, it would have to be in the same church or denomination so that they were raised by similar parents. You'd also need a pretty big sampling because a lot of things affect whether a child continues with God when he's older.

It's the scientific way. It's also Jesus' way, who said that you would know a prophet by his fruit, not by pitting your Scripture interpretations against his.

Personally, if I had to judge fruit, then I'm going with the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Plymouth Brethren and their descendants, and Watchman Nee's churches in China, all of whom believed in believers' baptism only. On the other hand, John Wesley had incredible fruit, and he was an infant-baptizing Anglican priest who never meant for the Methodists to leave the Anglican church.

Someone ought to go conduct that study on infant baptism my friend suggested!

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