Infant Baptism


INTRODUCTION

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” These words of Jesus can be heard every Sunday at Christian places of worship throughout the world. The baptismal font or pool has seen countless millions come to profess their faith in the risen Christ. The sacrament of baptism has been a symbol of Christianity and its of faithful throughout the centuries. The Roman Catholic and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches have placed great emphasis on the baptism of infants for the forgiveness of original sin, while the Magisterial Churches of the Reformation deemphasized the efficacy of baptism for salvation, while maintaining the practice of infant baptism. The legacy of the Anabaptists has left its mark on much of modern evangelicalism, with its emphasis on believer only baptism and therefore its rejection of infant baptism. It is my intention to use the writings of the church fathers to analyze the historical data surrounding the debate over baptism and to see what these men understood, or believed, about the practice of infant baptism.

There are few issues in the contemporary church that divide Christians like the subject of baptism. Debates over the specifics of baptism - especially over whether to baptize infants or believers - have raged almost as long as the sacrament has been administered to the faithful. Within the Reformed camp, there seems to be consensus regarding the theological basis of baptism and its connection to the circumcision of the Old Testament. Circumcision was the sign and seal of the Abrahamic Covenant, and a Reformed perspective argues that baptism is the continuation of this covenant in New Testament form. Marcel writes in The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism,
The doctrine of the covenant is the germ, the root, the pith of all revelation, and consequently of all theology; it is the clue to the whole history of redemption. Every other doctrine, no matter what it may be, is in some manner connected with it, and, as we shall see, especially and primarily the doctrine of the sacraments.
He is outlining here a connection between covenant theology and the basis for the performance of the sacraments, including baptism. Paul in his letter to the Colossians also comments on the similarities between circumcision and baptism from a covenantal perspective: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” In these two verses, Paul is clearly making a connection between the circumcision first given as a covenant sign to Abraham and the baptism of the new covenant dispensation.

Many theologians have used arguments such as these to support the practice of infant baptism. In Peter’s famous sermon on the day of Pentecost, he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children...” Just as the promises made to Abraham included his children, these theologians would argue that the children of new covenant believers are also included in the promises God makes to their parents.

Another question that has arisen out of the debate over infant baptism is whether it was an apostolic institution or a later development in the church. John Murray, in his Christian Baptism, suggests that we turn to the early church for answers - determining the proper grounds for baptism by examining the “divine institution and command” given to the church through Christ and his disciples.

Two prominent scholars on either end of the debate over the apostolic practice of baptism are Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland. In Jeremias’ book, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, he argues for the apostolic origin of infant baptism through the writings of church Fathers and biblical exegesis. Aland responds in his famous book Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?, with an attempt to disprove Jeremias’ assertions on historical, but not theological, grounds. He admits, in fact, to adhere to the practice of infant baptism - but does not believe the practice has apostolic origins.

In this article I will draw extensively from the work of these two men, and the many others who have made their mark on this great debate, as I analyze the writings of the early church fathers and the evidence therein that supports a pro-paedo-baptist perspective. I will dissect the writings of 2nd century church fathers Polycarp and Irenaeus, and 3rd century church fathers Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian, and Tertullian, in an attempt to show the apostolic origin of infant baptism. It should be understood that an article of this length couldn’t possibly do justice to the extensive debate at hand. However, the insight of these important minds should give us a solid foundation for further discussion on the subject.

SECOND CENTURY FATHERS

Our first evidence of baptism in the church comes from the New Testament. Jesus himself commanded his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” Scholars like Jeremias have pointed to these scriptures, along with the numerous examples of household baptisms as mentioned in the New Testament, to prove the existence of infant baptism in the apostolic period. But the first extra-biblical evidence we have for infant baptism comes from the second century church Fathers: namely Polycarp and Irenaeus. In order to peer into the ecclesiastical life of the first century Christians and prove the apostolic origin of infant baptism, we must analyze the evidence we find in these earliest available writings on the subject.

Polycarp
Our first piece of evidence comes from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who died around the middle of the second century. Polycarp was a disciple of John, and was known as a sincere and devout man. We know relatively little of his life, but what we do know comes largely from his letter to the Phillipians and from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Very little of this material deals with the subject of baptism. Yet one statement (and that from the account of his martyrdom) bears mentioning. As Polycarp stood before the governor of Smyrna, he refused his one last chance to reject Christ: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never once wronged me.” Jeremias argues that this mention of his 86 years shows Polycarp (most likely 86 years old at the time of his death) considered himself a disciple from a very early age, possibly suggesting an infant baptism. Jeremias, and many other scholars, estimate Polycarp’s birth at 69 or 70 AD. Jeremias writes, “the words ‘service of Christ’ for eighty six years supports a baptism soon after his birth rather than one as a child of ‘maturer years’,” a statement in which Jeremias directly opposes Aland’s assertion that children during this time in church history were more likely baptized at older ages. Admittedly, this evidence at best implicitly supports the practice infant baptism in the second century. It does, however, give strong evidence for the baptism of young children in general.

Irenaeus
A stronger piece of 2nd century evidence comes from Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus was known to be a pastoral bishop intent on protecting Christians against the harmful effects of Gnosticism. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity says of Irenaeus, “[he] was the first great Catholic theologian, one who emphasized the role of the church, the canon of scripture, and the religious and theological tradition.” In his Against Heretics, Irenaeus gives us important evidence for the presence of infant baptism in the 2nd century. He writes, “He came to save all persons by means of Himself - all, I say, who through Him are born again to a God - infants, children, boys, youth and old men.” In this statement, he purports that Jesus saves men at all stages of life. Among Irenaeus and his contemporaries, baptism would have been closely linked to the idea of being born again - giving us sufficient reason to suppose that he is here also speaking of the practice of baptism. Jeremias writes, “Irenaeus says that Jesus saves and sanctifies men of every age from infants...to old men...so far as they are baptized.”

Of course, not all scholars agree with his assertions. Brown argues that from Irenaeus’ statement about infants being born again, baptism can only be inferred. Nevertheless, Irenaeus’ choice of wording seems to give reasonable support to the presence of infant baptism as early as the mid-second century.

To be continued...


Kris A. Ryan