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What are the historical origins of infant baptism?

The issue of baptism is one that has troubled Protestants for centuries. As we look into the history of the church the issue of infant baptism has not been the problem it has been in recent centuries. As the church was in an evangelistic mode in the first three centuries we find clear statements of the fact of adult baptism upon conversion. There was also the concept that baptism washed away all pre-baptismal sins. Hence there arose the practice of postponing baptism until one’s deathbed in order not to commit post-baptismal sins which would have to be dealt with through penance.

As the church conquered the pagan world we see infant baptism as arising as a universal practice. In part this appears to be based upon the fact that even in the ancient church there was the concept that baptism was the initiation rite into the community of faith, and infants are born into that community so are baptized. A second factor appears to have been the rise of the understanding of original sin and the belief that baptism washed away the stain of original sin. Third, the ordinances very early were understood as actually conveying grace and accomplishing something spiritually. As early as A.D. 400 Augustine appeals to the universal practice of infant baptism as proof that the church saw infants born with the stain of original sin. We find explicit mention of infant baptism as early as Tertullian around A.D. 220. Tertullian mentions the practice in conjunction with sponsors who would aid in the child’s spiritual training. I would assume that this is the origin of the practice of godparents.

I include a paragraph from Schaff’s history of the church regarding baptism in the ancient church:

“In reviewing the patristic doctrine of baptism which was sanctioned by the Greek and Roman, and, with some important modifications, also by the Lutheran and Anglican churches, we should remember that during the first three centuries, and even in the age of Constantine, adult baptism was the rule, and that the actual conversion of the candidate was required as a condition before administering the sacrament (as is still the case on missionary ground). Hence in preceding catechetical instruction, the renunciation of the devil, and the profession of faith. But when the same high view is applied without qualification to infant baptism, we are confronted at once with the difficulty that infants cannot comply with this condition. They may be regenerated (this being an act of God), but they cannot be converted, i.e., they cannot repent and believe, nor do they need repentance, having not yet committed any actual transgression. Infant baptism is an act of consecration, and looks to subsequent instruction and personal conversion, as a condition to full membership of the church. Hence confirmation came in as a supplement to infant baptism.”

What follows is Schaff’s fuller treatment of infant baptism:

§ 73. Infant Baptism.

On INFANT BAPTISM comp. Just. M.: Dial. c. Tryph. Jud. c. 43. IREN.: Adv. Haer. II. 22, § 4, compared with III. 17, § 1, and other passages. TERTUL.: De Baptismo, c. 18. CYPR.: Epist. LIX. ad Fidum. CLEM. ALEX.: Paedag. III. 217. ORIG.: Com. in Rom. V. Opp. IV. 565, and Homil. XIV. in Luc. See Lit. in vol. I. 463sq., especially WALL. Comp. also W. R. POWERS: Irenaeus and Infant Baptism, in the “Am. Presb. and Theol. Rev.” N. Y. 1867, pp. 239-267. While the church was still a missionary institution in the midst of a heathen world, infant baptism was overshadowed by the baptism of adult proselytes; as, in the following periods, upon the union of church and state, the order was reversed. At that time, too, there could, of course, be no such thing, even on the part of Christian parents, as a compulsory baptism, which dates from Justinian’s reign, and which inevitably leads to the profanation of the sacrament. Constantine sat among the fathers at the great Council of Nicaea, and gave legal effect to its decrees, and yet put off his baptism to his deathbed. The cases of Gregory of Nazianzum, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustine, who had mothers of exemplary piety, and yet were not baptized before early manhood, show sufficiently that considerable freedom prevailed in this respect even in the Nicene and post-Nicene ages. Gregory of Nazianzum gives the advice to put off the baptism of children, where there is no danger of death, to their third year.(452) At the same time it seems an almost certain fact, though by many disputed, that, with the baptism of converts, the optional baptism of the children of Christian parents in established congregations, comes down from the apostolic age.(453) Pious parents would naturally feel a desire to consecrate their offspring from the very beginning to the service of the Redeemer, and find a precedent in the ordinance of circumcision. This desire would be strengthened in cases of sickness by the prevailing notion of the necessity of baptism for salvation. Among the fathers, Tertullian himself not excepted—for he combats only its expediency—there is not a single voice against the lawfulness and the apostolic origin of infant baptism. No time can be fixed at which it was first introduced. Tertullian suggests, that it was usually based on the invitation of Christ: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” The usage of sponsors, to which Tertullian himself bears witness, although he disapproves of it, and still more, the almost equally ancient abuse of infant communion, imply the existence of infant baptism. Heretics also practised it, and were not censured for it. The apostolic fathers make, indeed, no mention of it. But their silence proves nothing; for they hardly touch upon baptism at all, except Hermas, and he declares it necessary to salvation, even for the patriarchs in Hades (therefore, as we may well infer, for children also). Justin Martyr expressly teaches the capacity of all men for spiritual circumcision by baptism; and his “all” can with the less propriety be limited, since he is here speaking to a Jew.(454) He also says that many old men and women of sixty and seventy years of age have been from childhood disciples of Christ.(455) Polycarp was eighty-six years a Christian, and must have been baptized in early youth. According to Irenaeus, his pupil and a faithful bearer of Johannean tradition, Christ passed through all the stages of life, to sanctify them all, and came to redeem, through himself, “all who through him are born again unto God, sucklings, children, boys, youths, and adults.”(456) This profound view seems to involve an acknowledgment not only of the idea of infant baptism, but also of the practice of it; for in the mind of Irenaeus and the ancient church baptism and regeneration were intimately connected and almost identified.(457) In an infant, in fact, any regeneration but through baptism cannot be easily conceived. A moral and spiritual regeneration, as distinct from sacramental, would imply conversion, and this is a conscious act of the will, an exercise of repentance and faith, of which the infant is not capable. In the churches of Egypt infant baptism must have been practised from the first. For, aside from some not very clear expressions of Clement of Alexandria, Origen distinctly derives it from the tradition of the apostles; and through his journeys in the East and West he was well acquainted with the practice of the church in his time.(458) The only opponent of infant baptism among the fathers is the eccentric and schismatic Tertullian, of North Africa. He condemns the hastening of the innocent age to the forgiveness of sins, and intrusting it with divine gifts, while we would not commit to it earthly property.(459) Whoever considers the solemnity of baptism, will shrink more from the receiving, than from the postponement of it. But the very manner of Tertullian’s opposition proves as much in favor of infant baptism as against it. He meets it not as an innovation, but as a prevalent custom; and he meets it not with exegetical nor historical arguments, but only with considerations of religious prudence. His opposition to it is founded on his view of the regenerating effect of baptism, and of the impossibility of having mortal sins forgiven in the church after baptism; this ordinance cannot be repeated, and washes out only the guilt contracted before its reception. On the same ground he advises healthy adults, especially the unmarried, to postpone this sacrament until they shall be no longer in danger of forfeiting forever the grace of baptism by committing adultery, murder, apostasy, or any other of the seven crimes which he calls mortal sins. On the same principle his advice applies only to healthy children, not to sickly ones, if we consider that he held baptism to be the indispensable condition of forgiveness of sins, and taught the doctrine of hereditary sin. With him this position resulted from moral earnestness, and a lively sense of the great solemnity of the baptismal vow. But many put off baptism to their death-bed, in moral levity and presumption, that they might sin as long as they could. Tertullian’s opposition, moreover, had no influence, at least no theoretical influence, even in North Africa. His disciple Cyprian differed from him wholly. In his day it was no question, whether the children of Christian parents might and should be baptized—on this all were agreed,—but whether they might be baptized so early as the second or third day after birth, or, according to the precedent of the Jewish circumcision, on the eighth day. Cyprian, and a council of sixty-six bishops held at Carthage in 253 under his lead, decided for the earlier time, yet without condemning the delay.(460) It was in a measure the same view of the almost magical effect of the baptismal water, and of its absolute necessity to salvation, which led Cyprian to hasten, and Tertullian to postpone the holy ordinance; one looking more at the beneficent effect of the sacrament in regard to past sins, the other at the danger of sins to come.

Related Topics: Catholicism, Baptism