Church History: When looking at church history it's important to note that just because a respected church father wrote something about a topic and just because something was common practice early on doesn't mean it was right. The theology of the trinity is a great example, as it wasn't fully fleshed out until several centuries after the Apostles. There were many who held some strange views early on as they wrestled through difficult doctrine. That being said, there are a few important ideas we can draw from the church history about baptism that we see below.
2) You'll notice that some of the men quoted below were alive within one to two generations of the Apostles. That is very important, as these men are living at a time as it lends more credibility to their understanding of what the Apostles taught. A closer proximity to what was originally taught means that it would be harder to change commonly understood practices without serious push-back.
3) When we do see baptism mentioned in the early church, the references are often not just the individual arguing for their view, but rather describing thoughts on or observations of what is common practice within Christendom.
4) You will notice that some of the respected church fathers did view baptism as washing someone clean and saving them. But then again, who can blame them when they're reading passages like I Peter 3:21. While this idea is not something I advocate, the merits of such a theology is a different discussion to have. This wrong view doesn't negate the speaker's observation that the church throughout its early history was practicing infant baptism. As a good analogy, think about early church history and the trinity. The early church was littered with trinitarian heresies. Was Jesus fully man and fully God or was he just God in a man body? Was Jesus distinct from God or was he just God in a different mode? If Jesus was distinct from God and not just another mode, then was he still the same substance as God? If he wasn't of the same substance, were there then two Gods? Who can blame the early church for trying to interpret the specifics of a trinitarian theology. Yet we wouldn't view this confusion and inappropriate theology as evidence for the trinity being false. There was obviously a core belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were God, they just didn't know how it worked. I would argue that the same thing is true with infant baptism. You will see from the quotes below that infant baptism was extremely common from a very early point in church history. While we have a limited number of texts from the first and second centuries, by the third and fourth we begin to compile a plethora of documents that solidify this notion that infant baptism is the common practice of the early church. Yes, there are heresies that accompany this (see Origen's quote below). However, while various heresies come and go surrounding the nature of what infant baptism and baptism in general symbolize, the common thread is that infant baptism is in the air and is being discussed. If you want to throw out infant baptism for the reason that it has, at times, been accompanied by heresies or that there were times of uncertainty, I can't see how you can cling to the trinity - or most other Christian doctrine for that matter. Heresies and mistaken ideas are prominent as doctrine is hashed out. Infant baptism seems to be established as the main practice of the church around the same time that our current understanding of the trinity was hashed out, as well as the same time the Canon of scripture as we know it was recognized and solidified. Around the time that church councils are trying to pull everything and everyone in Christendom together, you see infant baptism is almost the universal practice for the next 1,000 years. While these church fathers could have been wrong, you can't do what many immersionists do and attempt to call infant baptism a corruption of doctrine at a time when the church and its leaders were particularly nefarious. If you want to make such a disparaging and sweeping statement about these men, you must also say "goodbye" to the canon and the trinity for the same reason, as the same men who solidified these ideas helped solidify the practice of infant baptism.
5) I have found a number of credobaptist counter-quotes from the early church fathers that are put forward as examples favoring believer's baptism. The problem I have with many of these is that they often seem inconsequential. Many of the quotes discuss fasting or repenting before baptism, which any paedobaptist would agree is a good thing for an adult convert who is coming to Christ. Showing that there were stipulations for adult believers to be baptized says nothing about whether children of believers were baptized. Second, the early church was trying to figure theology out. They didn't even nail the foundational doctrine of the trinity until the fourth century. They had some pretty clear parameters for it, but it was still very complex. My goal here isn't to use any quotes to trump other quotes or passages of scripture. I simply want to show that the idea of infant baptism didn't just come out of the blue. It was mentioned, discussed, and practiced throughout church history. To some, it was one of the commonsense applications of baptism. It was not some far later doctrine that arose during a particularly nefarious time in church history. Third, as you will see with some of the quotes below, there was an idea that went through the early church which said that baptism washed away your sins. Everything you did after baptism became problematic for you. For this reason, a number of early church fathers thought it best to wait until as late as possible to be baptized. Knowing that this idea was floating around during part of this time period, you have to ask who is being quoted and what was their belief on this. If they believed that one should be baptized later in life so they would be more clean, then of course they would want to discourage paedobaptism. And finally, a few church father quotes do nothing for your case if you don't have a significant case to begin with. I have laid out what I believe to be an extremely substantial case up to this point, and now I seek to bolster it by looking at church history. Immersionists can throw around a few church father quotes if they want, but until I see a substantive case for which those quotes can support, I won't be convinced on a few quotes alone.
- The "Didache," 7:1-7:7. I've seen this early document dated as early as 70 and as late as 150. It is the earliest church document outside of the NT of which I am aware. It appears to be a church handbook, of sorts, describing early practices. It is important to understand that this is a snapshot of one early church. Just because something is written here doesn't mean it is gospel truth. However, it does give us a glimpse as to what at least one early church practiced. While this document doesn't specifically mention infant baptism, it does highlight a few interesting things. First, baptisms were supposed to be done in living water (or running water). Second, baptisms were to be done in the name of the trinity, not just Jesus. If you couldn't make it to running water, pouring over the head from standing water was legitimate.
There's not too much you can conclusively draw, but again, given the context I've laid out, I'd like to think some of these elements fit nicely. The emphasis on living water and pouring seem to imply that the symbolism here is more about a coming upon and a quickening. It's a cleansing. We don't want standing water. We're talking about the Spirit coming upon you and cleansing you to new life. I also think the emphasis on the trinity is huge. I've seen plenty of churches make baptism all about Jesus, because if you're an immersionist that's the scope of the symbol. From my point of view and from those beautiful passages on baptism that show the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit together, I think this wholistic picture of the trinity's work is much more accurate.
[Most of the following taken from this site]
- Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp who was the disciple of John the Apostle, born around 100.
He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).
We have not received a carnal but the spiritual circumcision by baptism - And it is enjoined to all persons to receive it in the same way.
Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).
Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . 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. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).
The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).
As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).
What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400]).
The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).
Cyprian was not issuing a new decree but was keeping to the most solid belief of the Church in order to correct some who thought that infants ought not be baptized before the eighth day after their birth. . . . He agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born (Letters 166:8:23 [A.D. 412]).
By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive . . . gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants. . . . It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture, too. . . . If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412]).
- I would have loved to do a whole section on archaeology in the early church, but as there is so much reading to do on that and most of the books are pretty expensive and my time is thin, I'll just give it mention here under "Church History." There seems to be a lot of back and forth between immersionists and others as to the interpretation of two relevant components of early Christian creations. The first is the art Christians used to depict baptism, and the second is the structure of the ancient baptisteries.
It is interesting that we find plenty of Christian art that depicts a pouring of water over an individual's head. It is also interesting that many of the pictures that depict Jesus's baptism show him standing in hip-deep water (he could have been immersed or there could have been pouring), but most of the pictures I have seen depict the water as flowing. To me, this seems to bolster the fact that one, baptism via pouring was an early and accepted practice, and two, that even if there were baptisms via immersion, a vital part of such a baptism was the movement of water. I find it interesting that the mode of pouring/sprinkling/immersion could vary, which seems impossible if the symbolism is intended to directly depict the burial and resurrection of Christ. However, the one thing that seems to be continuously important is the movement of water.
There is also a lot of back and forth on the structure of early baptisteries. While we do find baptisteries that are large enough for immersive baptisms, we also find baptisteries that seem far too small to be used for immersion. Again, this seems to indicate that while immersion may have been present, sprinkling or pouring were also legitimate. I think the whole debate between immersion only and sprinkling/pouring only misses the evidence, and even worse, misses the whole point. It is pretty clear that there is no well-defined winner. There wasn't just immersion or just pouring. The significance, rather, seems to lie in the concept of moving water, the common thread in each of the applicative modes.
- Beyond the direct creations of the Christian community, there is also a big discussion focused on the development of immersive baptism in the Jewish community. While sprinkling or pouring far outweighed the use of immersion in the OT, and immersion was typically prescribed for priests after a particular ritual, or for garments, it seems that immersion and baptism made their way into Jewish practice. The earliest archaeological evidence I saw cited was a Jewish baptismal pool dated between 50 and 150 BCE. It's likely that by the time of Jesus immersion was practiced on a larger scale. While the OT doesn't prescribe baptism for proselytes, it appears as though immersive baptism eventually made its way as a requirement for proselytes and is still practiced in Judaism today.
While immersion may not have been foreign to the Jews (and therefore new Christian community) at this time, there are a few interesting items to observe. First, the notion of living water seemed to be present yet again in the Jewish baptisms. They did not fill their pools up with drawn water, but rather designed them to be filled with springs or rain. Second, when baptism for proselytes gained popularity, infants and children began to be included in this ceremony. A proselyte and their whole household were baptized - making the use of the word "household" seem even more clear in the "household" baptisms of the NT. I did see mention of some other reasons for baptizing infants that weren't related to being a proselyte as well. This site is about the best free site I could find that details much of what I've mentioned. But again, this sort of angle is harder approach due to the lack of readily available research. In the end, I don't think the Jewish baptisms do much to overturn the case of infant baptism. In fact, they seem to support such a notion. While they do lend much more credence to the preference for immersion in the early church, their use of living water still speaks volumes to the symbolism intended in baptisms that comports more with the position I've laid out.
I understand that I don't provide much here for easy follow-up. It's definitely an area you should pursue in research if you're interested. Let me know what you find!
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