Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
April 6, 2005
Should we Baptize Babies? A Study of Early Church Practices
I. How did you become a Christian in the New Testament
What must I do to be saved? What is Christian initiation? In Acts 14 and other relevant passages we can collect four elements to salvation: (a) repentance; (b) faith; (c) baptism; (d) receiving the Spirit. The point I want to make here is that the early church considered faith and baptism as 2 sides of the same coin. Baptism is part of the gospel message. One (re: “faith”) always implies the other; there is a unity in practice. Gal 3.25-26; Col. 2.11-12; the structure of Romans where chaps. 1-5 are about justification and chapter 6 unselfconsciously talks about baptism without changing the subject. There is, then, a single reality, from 2 different angles.
The early church linked conversion and baptism with the same connectivity as, say, revivalists view conversion & public confession (responding to an altar call. Really, altar calls function as a kind of surrogate baptism.) Christian homes cannot help but practically gravitate toward paedobaptism.
What about an understanding of believer’s baptism vs. the NT attestation to people baptized at the point of conversion, such a the Philippian Jailor who was baptized that very night? Indeed, there wasn’t any waiting on genuineness or evidence. If apostolic baptism is a baptism of converts, what about the baptism of infants? What do we do about the children of the earliest converts? The NT does not provide a clear answer. We are sure they were not required to wait a la converts baptism - a difference was made between those who came to faith as adults and those who were brought up in Christian homes. Some writing on this issue say it wasn’t even an issue until the 2nd Century, but that is silly. Early believers were people with families! There is no doubt that the question of whether or not to baptize children was a pressing issue from the beginning.
II. Did the Apostolic Church Baptize Babies?
All the evidence is ambiguous, thus, I take what I call a seismological approach. A Boston seismologist can observe an earthquake in Los Angeles without leaving their laboratory. How? Because they have instruments which extrapolate and deduce. Similarly, we can deduce 1st Century practice by examination of the earliest church fathers. A verdict must be approached backwards, working from the clear to the not-so-clear. We begin at the 3rd and 4th Centuries and move back.
In the 3rd Century we have 3 sources of information: Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen as well as tomb inscriptions. We also have, writing from Rome, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Witness, which has been shown to be a generated document with roots that could go as far back as the 1st Century. In the Apostolic Witness, the baptism of adults is the norm, but within that you do find the baptism of small children. Tertullian, writing from Carthage, suggests that baptism be delayed as much as possible, yet he never charges infant baptism with innovation. In the ancient world, innovation is bad; it usually springs from heresy. Tertullian would not have hesitated to bring such a charge against the practice of infant baptism if it was an innovation, but he never does. Tertullian actually only wants to baptize the “ready.” Thus, he urges a delay until the greatest redemptive effect may be obtained – largely a result of his understanding of the relationship between baptism & original sin. Cyprian mentions those who baptized their children 8 days after their birth (following the Jewish custom), but also mentions those who immediately baptized their infants. Origen (writing from Alexandria) claims that infant baptism goes all the way back to the apostles. We must remember, too, that Origen was born cir. 185 CE into a Christian family. There is a significance to tradition that we cannot discount. I myself was told by an elderly woman that she remembers her grandmother telling her about witnessing Napoleon going into exile as a little girl; I was getting this 160-year-old event secondhand! Baptism, too, is not a subtle event that can get mixed up in the memory, you either baptize babies or you don’t, yes/no. Certainly, then, informed Christians of the 2nd Century had a good idea about apostolic opinion.
By the last quarter of the 2nd Century at least some Christians were having their babies baptized. Some argue that the first indisputable reference is Tertullian in the 3rd Century. Yes, but when is the first indisputable reference to the baptism of someone raised in a Christian home? Aha! Same reference! Certainly, Tertullian objected to infant baptism and many leading Christians of the 4th Century weren’t baptized until they were adults (and thought nothing wrong of this). So, given this smorgasbord, I can discern no one pattern but only variety.
Gregory of Nazianzus tells his hearers to baptize whenever they want. He and others understood variety in the time/age of baptism. Tombstones agree with this. Thus, if we know there is accepted variety in the 3rd and 4th Centuries, why not infer it back into time? No one took a hard line either way on the grounds of apolosticity. What starts figuring into waiting until people are older is the fear of post-baptismal sin, with which the early church didn’t really know what to do; they came to understand baptism as a kind of trump card. Sin was Tertullian’s concern, but none called him an innovator for suggesting the delay of baptism. In practice, there was variety: from birth to death. The 1st principled objection to infant baptism doesn’t come about until the Anabaptists. The 2nd Century church: Irenaeus in the early 180’s mentions a variety of ages for baptism. Are we reduced to hints for the 1st Century? Household Baptism of Acts 16 and 1 Cor 1, “whole families” could refer to infant baptism.
In summary: there is no clear evidence until the 2nd Century, though using this seismological method we can infer it backward. In the end, there are 3 possible scenarios. (1) They did Baptize Babies. This is plausible per the epistolary mention of children & whole houses believing. Those who favored infant baptism didn’t charge Tertullian with innovation or not being true to the apostolic witness. (2) Didn’t. How is the variety that we see later to be explained, then? No one was saying that the apostolic church didn’t do it, including Tertullian, who wished people would wait. There is certainly inconclusive evidence for infant Baptism, but there is a total lack of evidence for an assertion as to only doing believer’s baptism. (3) Variety. This is, IMHO, the best option.
What caused this variety? A few off the cuff suggestions. Children born before & after their parent’s baptism. Jews or gentiles. Geographical differences attest for different baptismal practices.
III. Silence of the Bible.
There is a famous tract entitled, What the Bible Teaches about Infant Baptism. Apparently, you open it and it is blank. That is analogous to what we know about the initiation of children brought up in Christian homes. Acts 16.33 Luke wasn’t overly specific about what they did with the children, and we certainly wish he had been. On the other hand, if we are committed to living under the authority of the Bible, then shouldn’t we live under the authority of its silence as well as its assertion? Doesn’t it, then, give liberty to churches by allowing variety in its practice according to need and circumstance. The NT, then, warrants the variety of practice that we do see in the 3rd Century.
Practically speaking, when you examine the way that churches bring up their young, both paedobaptist and believer’s baptism, the similarities far outweigh the differences. Where one has baptism, another has dedication. Where one has public confession, the other has baptism. The pattern is pretty much the same. And, frankly, the two groups honestly don’t care enough about it to alter their curricula when it comes to children; both groups will minister to children in the same way without even asking whether a child has been baptized or not. Indeed, Christian parents in both treat their children as simil justis et peccator. Now, certainly, evangelicals today has far too low a view of baptism, but the early church had a high, high view and they still got along with all sorts of ages being baptized. Consider, for example, the Didache. There are all kinds of different ways of baptizing someone – only water is required in each. In other words, it could care less about the mode.
Other issues I didn’t get to for the sake of time: significant of the Old Testament; Diversity being the filling out of the whole witness. What I mean here is that some are called to be married, some not. Some are pacifists, some aren’t. In the variation of so many things, the variety fills out the whole, “thick” theology of the church.
Question & Answer
Q: Couldn’t you use your seismological method to support things such as the use of relics in the 1st Century?
A: But, see, in the case of relics, there is no evidence in the 1st Century. Clearly you have the immediate need of baptism in the 1st Century, where, with relics, there is no such need.
Q: What about the long separation which catechumens eventually had to go through before baptism?
A: This was either a response to paganism or the church got grace and works screwed up. Lent leads to Easter, but with Jesus it was the other way round. Augustine’s view of baptism addresses original sin.
Q: Any insights into baptism for the dead.
A: An off-the-cuff one. Think about the temporal difference between someone who has finished the work for their PhD and is waiting for commencement. Conversion is, then, more the finishing of all papers, and commencement is the public nature of baptism. I once saw a couple whose daughter had died in between these two moments and they had come to receive her diploma. She had done all the work – by right the diploma was hers. Perhaps we could think of baptism for the dead in the same way.
(The above are my notes/impressions and should not be quoted as direct statements by Dr. Lang)