Friday, October 10, 2008

Five Smooth Stones: The Historical Case for Infant Baptism

Although not a post in my baptism series, this is meant to supplement it. I want to address, as briefly as possible, the historical evidence for infant baptism. It is often argued that the practice was a late development. Some even argue that there is no example of it until the late fourth century. My objective in this article is to demonstrate by citing the church fathers that this is not correct. I cite five Fathers from the 2nd and 3rd centuries here that show the evidence that we currently have. If other historical evidence comes to my attention, I'll write a subsequent post.

Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor (probably Smyrna, modern Izmir) around 130 to Christian parents and is believed to have been the disciple of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was in turn the disciple of the apostle John (author of the Gospel of John, Epistles of John, and Revelation). His teacher, then, was taught by an apostle. He spent much of his ministry in Lyon, France (a missionary church of Polycarp) as the Bishop. He died a martyr around 200. This means most, if not all, of his ministry and writing was within 100 years of the death of John. In Against Heresies 2.22.4, he writes, "For [Christ] came to save all through means of Himself - all, I say, who through Him are born again to God - infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men." Because the Fathers did not admit a division between baptism and salvation, this is a clear statement of infant baptism in the church. Irenaeus could not have included infants in that list if they were not being baptised by the church. Here we have a Bishop in the church, within 100 years (late 2nd century) of the death of John, trained in Asia Minor by Polycarp disciple of John, remembered as the great heresy slayer, serving in France, making reference to the baptism of infants as normative in the church. It is difficult to see how he might favor infant baptism if the church he oversaw was planted by Polycarp, the disciple of John, unless infant baptism is apostolic.

Tertullian was born in Carthage (or at least the province of) around 145 or 155 to pagan parents. He was trained in Rome and is often referred to (in modern writings) as a lawyer, which may have been his line of work. He converted around 185. His writings certainly carry a wonderful logical sense of themselves and sound like the work of a lawyer's mind. He gave the church the word "Trinity" as well as many wonderful writings for which we are thankful. His ministry (as an elder - he doesn't seem to have ever served as a Bishop) in Carthage was from about 190 to 200. Again, this puts his writings about 100 years after the death of John and the end of the apostolic age. Tertullian's support for our view comes in a round about way. We disagree with his argument, but in making it, he reveals the normative practice in his day and time. Tertullian argues in On Baptism Chapter 18 that baptism should be delayed (not only for children, but for anyone unmarried). He makes reference to the practice of parents speaking for their children in baptism (a clear indication of the very young age of the child and the child's inability to confess Christ), and argues against it. He recognizes that they appeal to Christ's teaching, "Let the little ones come unto me and forbid them not." His argument, however, is not based upon the Baptist objection, but upon the view that once a person is baptized, he or she may no longer sin without putting themselves in grave spiritual peril. He does not, however, make any attempt to argue that the practice is not biblical, apostolic, or orthodox. Nor does he say those baptized as infants should be rebaptized, or that their infant baptism isn't true baptism. He offers his point of view as a pastoral suggestion only. The value in his writing, then, is in witnessing to the apparently acknowledged practice of infant baptism in Carthage at the end of the 2nd century.

Born to Christian parents around 185 in or around Alexandria, Egypt, Origen was a lay person in the church known among other things for his role as a teacher of new converts (he led the catechetical school at Alexandria, famous throughout the Church at the time). His father was martyred when Origen was about 17 years old. His works span the period of the first half of the third century and represent to some degree the events and views of Alexandrian Christianity in the early third century. He says in his Homily on Leviticus, 8.3, "In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants." In his Commentaries on Romans, 5:9, he argues that this "usage" came from the apostles. "The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants." Origen may be mistaken. But no one takes him to task until after the Reformation. Who is likely to have a better take on what was and was not apostolic? Origen (a teacher in the church born about 90 years after the apostolic period to Christian parents), or an Anabaptist of the 16th century?

The Apostolic Tradition
This writing of the early church is thought to have been composed by Hippolytus of Rome who died about 235. This makes its writing roughly contemporary with Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Hippolytus is believed by most to have been Bishop of Portus very near Rome. The Apostolic Tradition has been tentatively dated to around 215. In this work, chapter 21.4, Hippolytus teaches, "The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family." Here is one more example from the period of a Bishop teaching the baptism of children too young to answer for themselves. This time in Rome. Notice also that the language of baptism here is household, further reinforcing our argument on that point.

Cyprian was born in 200 and died in 258, placing his testimony in the same period, but slightly later than the above witnesses. He was a disciple of Tertullian and Bishop of Carthage in North Africa. With regard to the subject of infant baptism, Cyprian argues (on behalf of 66 presbyters meeting in council) in Epistle LVIII, "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 the eighth day, we all thought very differently." Cyprian goes on to argue that there is no reason to delay baptism to the eighth day. Instead, infants may be baptized upon birth. He argues instead that they should be baptized, teaching in the same letter, "how much more, then, should an infant not be held back". Cyprian accepts the principle of baptism as the NC circumcision, but just as the sign changed from circumcision (bloody) to baptism (unbloody), so the requirement that it be applied on the eighth day is now changed to allow for immediate application. Again, it should be pointed out, that Fidus (to whom the letter is addressed) is taking issue with the normative practice of the church of baptizing infants. He does not object to their baptism, but only to baptizing them "early". He thinks they should wait to the 8th day. He is appealing to the rite of circumcision as his motivation, and the council does not take issue with this, but argues that his application is too legalistic. This discussion takes place in the context of the early 3rd century church (again, about 120 years after the apostles). And the view presented is not one man's, but that of an entire council of presbyters in North Africa!

The testimony of these five demonstrates that in the churches 100-150 years after the apostolic period of the church, the baptism of infants was practiced in Asia Minor, France, Egypt, Carthage, and Rome. Given the geographic scope of these writings, the prominence (even in their own day) of these men and their writings, and the indication in each that infant baptism was not unorthodox or heretical, but the normative practice of their churches, I return to the question of my previous post. Does it seem probable that such testimony would exist if infant baptism were contrary to the clear teaching of the apostles? Certainly these men are not infallible, nor were their churches. And there are other things these men taught that we call into question. But on something as fundamental as who should receive baptism, does it seem likely they would (especially in the case of Irenaeus who is only once removed from the apostle John himself) not only allow but embrace such an inappropriate teaching? Two of these men were born into Christian homes (Irenaeus, c.130 and Origen, c.185). They advocate infant baptism, and no record exists of an "adult" baptism for either, making their own baptism as infants a likelihood. Allowing ourselves a bit of license on this account, Irenaeus' baptism in 130 as an infant, then, would have been performed by someone such as Polycarp, discipled by an apostle. We cannot argue this for certain, but it is not at all unreasonable given the evidence before us. And if these men did break with the teaching of the apostles, how do we explain the widespread nature of their break? Heresy has typically started in a local place and spread, but this practice has no such local beginnings. Indeed, since these earliest writings claim apostolic origin for their authority, no one can point to the time when infant baptism began in the church. And where are the writings against the practice? No one speaks up to say, "This isn't the tradition we received!" This argument is compounded by the fact that several of the men above are noted for their defense of the faith and the tradition handed down to them. They are recognized by all Christian scholars today as great men of the church who faithfully played their part in transmitting the faith to the next generation and fighting any heresy or aberration that might try to creep in. Is it likely such men, spread across the Roman empire, quietly introduced a new idea and no one spoke up?

My purpose has not been to establish the case for infant baptism beyond all doubt according to history. I merely intend to demonstrate that the evidence for such as an apostolic practice is not as scant as the credobaptist would have you believe. Their own requirement that only confessors be baptized is not nearly as well supported. Pointing to the example of such is insufficient for them. We teach the baptism of confessors as well. They are seeking to deny infant baptism, but there is no such text in all of the early fathers that teaches us to deny baptism to our infants. They seek to establish that only confessors can be baptized, but there is no such text that teaches this (only examples of confessors being baptized, which I've just admitted we agree with). Occasionally a Father, such as Tertullian, will counsel postponement, but then for reasons that the Baptist himself cannot agree with, demonstrating that he did not have their view in mind. Particularly lacking is any instruction to rebaptize those who were baptized as infants. Nor is there a single example of a child coming of age and then being baptized. The Baptist is left without any evidence for his view, then, for most of the 1500 years leading up to the Reformation. This should put the 100 year gap between the Apostles and any teaching on infant baptism into perspective.

*My title is a sort of tongue in cheek reference to my use of these five fathers to "slay" the Baptist argument that infant baptism is without early attestation. It's really just meant for fun. I hope none will take offense.


Jared Nelson said...

Nice post. The shear geographical universality of infant baptism is staggering. Very early and in Carthage, Egypt, France and Rome. If it was not the practice of the apostles, then it was the most silent, quickest spreading heresy with nary a word in opposition. Historical method requires sources, and credo-baptists are left wanting.

About Janice said...

Thanks for all your hard work on this Matt! I'll be returning to this frequently.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Great post Matt!

Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks all.

Jay...looking forward to your next post in the Wellum series.

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm a good 7 months behind in reading this post - but just know that I really appreciate your work on this. Thanks!

Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks, Noah! I enjoyed working on it. I recently came across a book by a couple of Baptist scholars which attempts to undermine these early witnesses to infant baptism. In large part, I found that they didn't understand the part each witness played in the whole. What's more, they didn't answer the question of where THEIR witnesses are for nearly 1500 years in church history. I;m not at the office, but I believe the title was "Baptism in the Early Church" and Louw was one of the two authors.