Infant Baptism

THIRD CENTURY FATHERS

The church fathers of the second century give us some strong but largely indirect evidence for the apostolic origin of infant baptism. Clearer evidence is given to us, however, through the writings of the third century church fathers. They are in fact the first to give us explicit references to the practice of infant baptism within the church. Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian give us favorable evidential statements, while men like Tertullian who agree with the apostolic origin still seem to dislike the practice. Analyzing the thoughts of these early scholars does much to bolster the pro-paedo-baptist perspective.

Hippolytus
Hippolytus was presbyter and, eventually, rival bishop at Rome. He was a prominent theologian whose designation as a rival bishop came from his disagreement with two bishops, Zephyrinus and Callistus, after which he was ordained bishop of a schismatic community in Rome. His most important work was the Apostolic Tradition, an elaboration of church order and tradition in Rome written between 215 and 220. Despite the negative connotations sometimes associated with his break from the Catholic church, this work has been extremely important in understanding the life of the Early Church. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity adds, “The recovery of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition from the later church-order literature that incorporated it has given valuable information on ordination, ministries in the church, the catechumenate, baptism...and other church practices.”

The section on baptism gives important information on the early subjects of the sacrament. Hippolytus, in describing the order of baptism, writes, “First the little ones should be baptized. All who can speak for themselves should speak. For those however who cannot, their parents or another who belongs to their family should speak.” Even Kurt Aland admits that this evidence is unambiguous. Infants, in this particular situation, are baptized. If we are to trust Hippolytus’ account - while some scholars clearly do not - we must admit to the presence of infant baptism at least as early as the late 2nd century. Aland here would disagree, arguing that instead of looking at the current practices of the church and the past traditions of the apostles, Hippolytus is looking forward to the future of the church, perhaps intending to direct its course. However, the very title of the work suggests that Hippolytus is indeed writing about the practices of the earliest church fathers. Jeremias writes that Hippolytus’ intention was “expressly stated in the prologue, that to guard against heretical innovations he was codifying what has long been handed down.”

Origen
One of the most prolific writers in all of antiquity, Origen was born to devout Christian parents in approximately 185. Origen is an interesting character that has drawn a lot of attention from modern scholars. He has been described as a “philosopher and scholar, mystic, systematician, proponent of an esoteric system, exegete and allegorist, saint (even martyr), true gnostic...and man of the church.” Origen testifies to the legitimacy of infant baptism in many of his writings.

In his Homily on Leviticus, “Origen presupposes that the practice of infant baptism is so natural and undisputed that it can provide extra support to underpin his assertion based on scripture that newborn children are tainted with sin.” Aland and Brown argue that infant baptism arose following the innovation that babies are sinful, but, as Jeremias points out, Origen argues the other way around: “from infant baptism he infers that the newborn infant must be tainted, must, in fact, be sinful.” In Origen’s Commentary on the Letter to the Romans he mentions that the custom of infant baptism dates back to the apostles. Because he is writing in the early 3rd century and at that time was considered a well-respected and devout believer, his testimony must, at the very least, be taken seriously.

In his Homily on Luke, Origen once more takes up the argument for infant baptism. Jeremias notes, “(I) that Origen is incidentally taking up a problem frequently discussed ‘among the brethren’; (II) that this problem is not whether the infants should be baptized, but rather what meaning their baptism has, and (III) that nothing is said about the ‘brethren’ abstaining from baptizing infants.” This evidence demonstrates that Origen’s testimony for the apostolic origin of infant baptism is based on his account of historical facts and not simply a theological construct.

Tertullian
Much information on infant baptism in the early church comes from the writings of Tertullian. He was born in approximately 160 , in Carthage, and his writings date roughly between 196 and 212. Tertullian is known as the father of Latin theology, and is the first church father of significance to write exclusively in Latin. His writings were extremely important and influential, not only in the area of theology, but also those of church discipline and unity. Despite his late defection to montanism, Tertullian was an ardent champion of orthodoxy. His writings on baptism reveal his passion for the subject: “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.” Many see Tertullian’s writings on this subject to be the chief evidence against the apostolic origin of infant baptism. One such piece of evidence comes from his volume De Baptismo (On Baptism). In it, Tertullian is opposing the current practice in the Carthaginian church. Aland writes, “...in Carthage a significant tendency to baptize infants or young children is evidently in motion, but Tertullian expressly opposes it.” Tertullian wastes no time in pointing out his preference for the delay of baptism. He asks, “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?”, and continues, “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.”

There are many opinions as to why Tertullian was opposed to the practice of infant baptism. Scholars like Aland argue that Tertullian’s advocacy for delaying baptism is due to his desire to stem the tide of a new development. According to some scholars, Tertullian, being the champion of orthodoxy that he was, saw infant baptism as a threat to the apostolic tradition. However, if Tertullian wanted to do away with this practice, he could have easily appealed to the traditions of the apostles to do so. Jeremias pointedly asks, “Would he have let slip the chance of pointing out that he was defending against attempts to introduce innovations the Church’s good old custom of baptizing children only at the age of puberty...?” What then was his motivation? One of his main objections to infant baptism, instead of referring to a break from apostolic tradition, was that infant baptism placed too much of a burden on the godparents, or sponsors, of the child. Tertullian writes, “...why is it necessary...that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger?” Later in his writings, Tertullian even goes so far as to allow the practice of infant baptism in the case of an emergency, i.e. before its death. “This concession, too, does not have in view a proposed innovation, but it is the only part of the regular practice of the Church which Tertullian is willing to retain.”

We can deduce from Tertullian’s writings, then, that not only are the arguments unfounded that use his writings to oppose infant baptism on the basis of a non-apostolic origin, but that Tertullian’s concessions in fact more appropriately point to a supportive argument of the apostolic origin.

Cyprian
Cyprian, a self proclaimed student of Tertullian, was born in Carthage in approximately 200 to a very wealthy family. He was converted to Christianity in 245 under the influence of Cecilius, a presbyter in Carthage. Following his conversion, Cyprian sold most of his estate and undertook a life of celibacy. His generosity led to him being selected as a presbyter and eventually to his election as the bishop of Carthage in 248. Cyprian, known for his strict standards regarding the readmittance of lapsed Christians and schismatics into the church, wrote much on the subject of baptism. In a letter (Letter 64) written to a man named Fidus, Cyprian addresses the topic of infant baptism. A controversy had arisen at that time as to whether or not the baptism of children should wait until the 8th day of life, as with the Jewish circumcision. Such was the view of Fidus. Letter 64 is a direct response to Fidus’ view in which Cyprian argues for the immediate baptism of infants.

He suggests that the image of circumcision had ceased, and that newborn babies should not be denied baptism. He writes, “...spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by a carnal circumcision, but...should be admitted to the grace of Christ.” And again he writes, “this was our decision in the council that no one ought to be cut off by us from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all.” Statements like these, taken in light of Cyprian’s passion for unity and orthodoxy, give us a clear example of a church father who held to the legitamacy of the practice of infant baptism. Greenslade describes Cyprian’s view of the church as “a single, visible body, using the apostolic Scriptures in addition to the Old Testament, maintaining the traditional apostolic faith, living under the institutions which have been handed down from apostolic times; and it is further linked with the apostles by the succession of bishops at each see.” Understanding Cyprian’s view of the church as such, it would be highly unlikely that he would be so passionate about a church practice (i.e. infant baptism) that he didn’t believe dated back to the apostles. Kurt Aland admits this, in part, when he says Cyprian’s view “is stated with such definiteness [that] we must conclude that infant baptism at this time in Africa was not only a Church rule but a Church requirement.”

CONCLUSION

Many have argued that any evidence in favor of the apostolic origin of infant baptism comes from the writings of the North African church fathers. Brown writes, “historical evidences point to the fact that infant baptism originated in North Africa.” And it is true that much of our evidence does come from North Africa (as via the writings of Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian discussed here) - in fact, Western Christianity owes much of its theology and tradition to the brilliant minds that came from this area.

As we have read, however, our evidence is not limited to North Africa as its sole source. Polycarp and Irenaeus make implicit mention of the practice of baptism unrestricted by the maturity of later years in their 2nd century Asia Minor (Smyrna) and Gaul. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition not only offers us a view of the practice of infant baptism in 3rd century Rome, it also tells us of a tradition that was handed down from the apostles.

Augustine, another North African father, provides the capstone for the argument that early ecclesiastical practice included the baptism of infants. His defeat of Pelagius solidified the practice for the remainder of the 4th century and into the Middle Ages. Aland writes that, “After the controversies of Augustine with Pelagius, any objection to the rightness of infant baptism is impossible.” Augustine, himself, offers these words: “The custom of our mother church in baptizing infants must not be disregarded, nor be counted needless, nor believed to be other than a tradition of the Apostles.” We would do well to listen to the testimony of men such as him.

Kris Ryan

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See also: Infant Baptism in the Writings of Early Church Fathers prior to Augustine (Part 1)