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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.
We have three things to cover:
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 Scripture 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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!
If that is not clear enough, he adds:
This sort of thinking is typical of 2nd century writers.
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!
My newest book, Rome's Audacious Claim, was released December 1!