Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Infant Baptism in Early Church History

I don't often post things I have to write in essays for my theological degree, but I thought this would be a good post for future reference. Also in my essay this all has to be reduced to about 500 words, and I didn't want all this to go to waste. (I may later blog on the reformers position in another post.)

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Below is a quick sketch on the Early Churches position on infant baptism with links to original sources (where I can find them online). However, the quotes that I use are from the inline references.

The first direct reference to Christian infant baptism is by Tertullian (160-225 AD). He warned against baptising young children and suggested they should wait until “they are able to know Christ.” (Tertullian, Baptism 18:3-6) (Lawson, 2011, p. 133). However Tertullian does have limits on his criticism of infant baptism. He says that it there is no need then baptism should hold off until the child reaches a responsible age, but he does not oppose the idea if death is possible, producing a need (McMaken, 2013, p. 14). The fact that Tertullian was arguing against the practice of infant baptism if there was no need is implicit evidence that it was common enough for him to argue against it (Jensen, 2010, p. 396).

Origen (184/5-253/4 AD) struggled with the issue of infant baptism but ended up supporting it “because the stains of birth are removed through the sacrament of baptism” (Origen, Homilies on Luke 14:5). In Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 he puts baptism on the level of a ritual purification (Senn, 2012, p. 451) and not as the removal of personal or original sin (Lawson, 2011, p. 134).

Irenaeus (130?-202 AD) states that “Jesus came to save all through himself: all, indeed, who are reborn through him in God – infants, children, boys and girls, young people, and older ones.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2:22,4) (Lawson, 2011, p. 134).

Cyprian (200-258 AD) reports on the decision at the Synod of Carthage (251-253 AD) that infants should be baptised as soon as possible and not wait till the 8th day at it was with circumcision (Lawson, 2011, p. 134) and points out that God’s grace is not “distributed in greater or lesser degree according to the ages of the recipients.” (Cyprian, Epistle 64:2-3). It is possible that Cyprian may have held this position for infants who were in mortal danger (Jensen, 2010, p. 397).

Macarius (died before 335 AD) describes a change in practice of catechising young people for three years before baptising them to baptising infants of believers “because they were born in the faith of Christ, children of the faithful” (Macarius, “Letter”) (Lawson, 2011, p. 134).

In the Apostolic Tradition (3rd cent?), the procedure of a group baptism is described by baptising the children first and to let the “parents or some relative speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.” (Apostolic Tradition 21.4) (Lawson, 2011, p. 135). This document contains no direct reference on the theology of baptism and is only inferred from the text (McMaken, 2013, p. 11). The significants of the order was mostly like for modesty sake as the women were baptised last (Jensen, 2010, p. 398).

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389/90 AD) in his Oration on Holy Baptism (40:28) said that infants should only be baptised “if any danger presses”, otherwise they should wait till the child is at least three and able to “answer something about Sacrament” (McMaken, 2013, p. 16; Jensen, 2010, p. 398).

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Chrysostom (347-407 AD) in the East used a different argument to Augustine for defending infant baptism. For him baptism was a sign of inclusion in the church and the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Lawson, 2011, p. 137).

Augustine (354-430 AD) in the West object to the idea that infants can’t be saved. He saw that by the sacraments an infant can become partakers of Christ (Sermon, 174:6,7) and that it is the sacrament that “makes the child a believer” (Letter 98:10). Augustine provided one of the main theological argument for infant baptism. Since all are sinners and in need of salvation and it is baptism that removes sins and secures salvation, infants should be baptised so they do not die in their sins. During Augustine’s day, Pelagians held that infant baptism was not for the forgiveness of sins but to enter the kingdom of heaven, whilst Augustine argued that baptism was for the forgiveness of sin because infants shared in the guilt of original sin of Adam. Augustine’s reading of Romans 5:12 had everyone present in Adam (in the same way a leaf is present in a seed) and therefore all share in the guilt of original sin. It is the work of Christ that is made effective in baptism to bring about the salvation of the person (McMaken, 2013, pp. 18-19). Augustine’s connection of baptism with salvation essentially reduced baptism into a mechanical step to achieve a full Christian life (Wills, 2012, p. 175).

The Council of Carthage in 418 AD further supported Augustine’s idea that (infant) baptism removed original sin. It even states that those who “deny that children should be baptised fresh from the womb of their mothers” should be condemned. Children who do not know anything are still to be baptised as “it is necessary that those who have been condemned by another’s sin now be saved by another’s faith” (John the Deacon, Letter to Senarius, 7) (Lawson, 2011, p. 137). In this case, the other person’s faith is the child’s parents, or god parents and is not related to Jesus’ actions or faith given to them by God.

It was not long after this that baptismal fonts in the sixth century were made smaller to cater for baptising infants rather than adults (Jensen, 2010, p. 400) because in 526 AD Justinian (482-565 AD) made child baptism compulsory (Jensen, 2010, p. 405).

Works Cited 

Jensen, R. M. (2010). Material and documentary evidence for the practice of early Christian baptism. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 20(3), 371-405.

Lawson, K. E. (2011). Baptismal theology and practices and the spiritual nurture of children part I: Early and medieval church. Christian Education Journal, 8(1), 130-145.

McMaken, T. W. (2013). The sign of the Gospel: Toward an evangelical doctrine of infant baptism after Karl Barth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Senn, F. C. (2012). Everett Ferguson's baptism in the early church: A liturgical appraisal. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 20(3), 439-455.

Wills, G. (2012). Font of life: Ambrose, Augustine and the mystery of baptism. New York: Oxford University Press.


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