THE INFANT BAPTISM IN THE EARLY CHURCH

russian-baptism

From the beginning of New Testament Christianity at the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2: 38-39) to the present time, unbroken and uninterrupted; the Church has baptized infants. Entire households (Jewish, proselytes and Gentiles) were baptized by Christ’s original twelve Apostles (I Corinthians 1: 16; Acts 11: 14, 16: 15, 33, 18: 8) and that practice has continued with each generation.

Below are other testimonies of the early Christians on infant baptism:

Aristides of Athens, Christian apologist

“And when a child has been born to one of them[ie Christians], they give thanks to God[ie baptism]; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who as passed through the world without sins” (Apology, 15 [A.D. 140])

St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna

“Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9[A.D. 156])

St. Justin, Christian apologist

“And many,both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure and at the age of sixtey or seventy years […]” (First Apology, 15:6 [A.D. 110-165])

St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lugdunum

“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]).

“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment34 [A.D. 190]).

Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus

“I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixy-five years in the Lord” (Fragment in Eusebius’ Church History, V:24:7 [A.D. 190]).

St. Hippolytus, early Christian theologian

“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]).

Origen, early Christian theologian

“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]).

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage

“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 to Fidus 64:2 [A.D. 253]).

“If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (ibid., 64:5).

St. Optatus, bishop of Milevis

“It shows no crease when infants put it on[ie the baptismal garment], it is not too scanty for young men, it fits women without alteration” (Against Parmenium, 5:10 [A.D. 365]).

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, patriarch of Constantinople

“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388]).

“‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” (ibid., 40:28).

St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).

St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan

“Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ No one is expected: not the infant, not the one prevented by necessity” (Abraham 2,11:79 [A.D. 387]).

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo

“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]).

The Council of Carthage V

“Item: It seemed good that whenever there were not found reliable witnesses who could testify that without any doubt they [abandoned children] were baptized and when the children themselves were not, on account of their tender age, able to answer concerning the giving of the sacraments to them, all such children should be baptized without scruple, lest a hesitation should deprive them of the cleansing of the sacraments. This was urged by the [North African] legates, our brethren, since they redeem many such [abandoned children] from the barbarians” (Canon 7 [A.D. 401]).

The Council of Mileum II

“[W]hoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or say that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration […] let him be anathema [excommunicated]. Since what the apostle [Paul] says, ‘Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so passed to all men, in whom all have sinned’ [Rom. 5:12], must not be understood otherwise than the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration” (Canon 3 [A.D. 416]).

The Council of Africa

“Canon 2. Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized […] let him be anathema” (Canon 2 [A.D. 418]).

The Council of Carthage XVII

“Concerning the Donatists it seemed good that we should hold counsel with our brethren and fellow priests Siricius and Simplician concerning those infants alone who are baptized by Donatists: lest what they did not do of their own will, when they should be converted to the Church of God with a salutary determination, the error of their parents might prevent their promotion to the ministry of the holy altar” (Canon 47/51 [A.D. 419]).

St. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria

Believest thou this?…when a newborn child is brought forward to receive the anointing of initiation, or rather of consumation through holy baptism” (Commentary on John, 7 [A.D. 428]).

St. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome

QUESTION XIX. Concerning those who after being baptized in infancy were captured by the Gentiles, and lived with them after the manner of the Gentiles, when they come back to Roman territory as still young men, if they seek communion, what shall be done? REPLY. If they have only lived with Gentiles and eaten sacrificial food, they can be purged by fasting and laying on of hands, in order that for the future abstaining from things offered to idols, they may be partakers of Christ’s mysteries. But if they have either worshipped idols or been polluted with manslaughter or fornication, they must not be admitted to communion, except by public penance” (To Rusticus, Epistle 167 [A.D. 459])

St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome

“But with respect to trine immersion in baptism, no truer answer can be given than what you have yourself felt to be right; namely that, where there is one faith, a diversity of usage does no harm to holy Church. Now we, in immersing thrice, signify the sacraments of the three days’ sepulture; so that, when the infant is a third time lifted out of the water, the resurrection after a space of three days may be expressed” (To Leander, Epistle 43 [A.D. 591]).

NEVERTHELESS, the witness of the literary texts of the early church fathers, councils and apologists for the practice of infant Baptism in the first Christian centuries receives valuable confirmation from the catacombs and cemeteries of the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe. An example of this already comes from about A.D. 260 in North Africa in an inscription from Hadrumetum (Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres II, 4429-A): ARISUS IN PACE NATUS ORA SEXTA BIXIT SUPRA SCRIPTAS VIIII — This Latin inscription indicates that a child who died nine hours after its birth was baptized. There are also epitaphs from the A.D. 200’s of small children who had been baptized. In that century there are attributes and symbols in tombstones inscriptions of little children which allows clear acheological evidence of baptized children. In the second last line in one of the epitaphs is the phrase Dei Serv(u)s which means slave of God followed by the Chi Rho symbol for Christ. The last line in the same epitaph is the Greek ichtheos familiar as the “fish symbol” — an anagram for Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior — these words and symbols mark the one-year, two months, and four-day-old child as a baptized Christian.

From the Lateran Museum, also from A.D. 200’s artifact, is Greek inscription that gives information about the religious status of the parents. It reads, “I, Zosimus, a believer from believers, lie here having lived 2 years, 1 month, 25 days.” In the Roman catacomb of Priscilla is reference to a private emergency baptism that was administered to the one-and-three-quarter-year-old Apronianus and enabled him to die as a believer. The inscription reads: “Dedicated to the departed. Florentius made this inscription for his worthy son Apronianus who lived one year and nine months and five days. As he was truly loved by his grandmother and she knew that his death was imminent, she asked the church that he might depart from the world as a believer.”

On the other hand, the first recorded opposition to the practice comes from Tertullian in the third century. He objected to the practice of baptizing infants because of the heretical idea that sin after baptism was nearly unforgivable (On Baptism 18). However, the controversy over infant baptism did not arise in its present form until the Protestant Reformation. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted on the practice. Martin Luther wrote:

“Now if God did not accept the Baptism of infants, he would not have given any of them the Holy Spirit nor any part of him; in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian. Since God has confirmed infant baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit […] our adversaries must admit that infant Baptism is pleasing to God. For he can never be in conflict with himself, support lies and wickedness, or give his grace and spirit for such ends” (Tappert: Book of Concord, [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959] pp. 442-3).

Yet, it was with Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), of the Swiss Reformed Church, that the first serious objections arose. Several of Zwingli’s students re-baptized themselves, proclaiming that they did so because their infant baptisms were invalid since they were not accompanied by professions of faith. This ignited a debate in the early Reformed churches, which was heavily influenced by social and political dimensions as well as theology. Soon after, former Anglican minister John Smyth (1570–1612) and his followers re-baptized themselves and the Baptist Church was born. The 1644 London Confession of the Calvinist Particular Baptists stated, “Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispersed only upon persons professing faith.” The rest of the anti-Catholic cults adhered to it.

Remember that Protestant objections to baptizing children did not emerge from a vacuum-sealed objective reading of the Scriptures. Such objections arose from assumptions which were of recent origin and should not be retroactively applied to the Scriptures nor to the Church which arose within and around them.

Therefore, conscientious Christians must not delay but hasten with their children to Baptism that they may received the gift of salvation and regeneration and gratefully embrace the Apostle’s affirmation extended to those of all age groups: “For as many of you as have been baptized have put on Christ” (Galatians 3: 27).

DO NOT DELAY BUT HASTEN!

images (11)
Early image of an adult baptising a child found in the Chapel of Sacraments “Area 3” of the Catacomb of St. Callixtus on the Appian Way in Rome, 3rd century A.D.
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