Losing The Faith (8/22)

Infant Baptism

We could find no direct references to the baptism of infants in the second century. There is a statement of Irenaeus that has been taken to refer to the practice, but there is some question that it was so intended. Irenaeus writes: “For he came to save all by means of himself – all, I say, who by him are born again to God – infants, children, adolescents, young men and old men.” From its context, it is doubtful that the writer meant to countenance infant baptism, or that the practice was known to him (Against Heresies, II, xxiv.4).

The following note may be of help with this quotation: “The context of Irenaeus’ statement is his doctrine of recapitulation according to which Christ summed up all of humanity in himself. Involved in this conception for Irenaeus was the idea that Jesus passed through all the ages of life, sanctifying each. There is nothing specifically about baptism, but ‘born again’ makes one think of baptism. ‘Regeneration,’ a different word from what is used in the passage under consideration, regularly means baptism for Irenaeus” (Everett Ferguson: Early Christians Speak, p. 59).

Tertullian, early in the third century, writes of the baptism of infants, thereby indicating that it was done in his day; but he does not approve of it. We would assume from his comment that it was not the general practice. “Let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. In what respect does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? Should we act more cautiously in worldly matters, so that divine things are given to those to whom earthly property is not given? Let them learn to ask for salvation so that you may be seen to have ‘given to him who asks’” (Tertullian: On Baptism, xvii).

Baptism for “Original Sin”

The idea of baptism for the removal of “original sin” was also a later, and more gradual, development. It seems to have come into existence as a justification for the practice of infant baptism, rather that the other way around. Origen (AD 230) seems to begin the process that developed this form of reasoning.

“Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. Of what kinds? Or when did they sin? But since ‘No one is exempt from stain,’ one removes the stain by the mystery of baptism. For this reason infants also are baptized. For ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Origen: Homily on Luke, xiv:5).

Cyprian puts the case similarly. He writes that baptism and grace should not be denied to infants, since they have not sinned “except in that being born physically according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death by his first birth” (Cyprian, Epistle, lviii). The very fact that these “fathers” find it necessary to justify infant baptism suggests that the practice broke an earlier precedent.

Doctrine of Original Sin

We have seen from the quotations cited from Origen and Cyprian that the doctrine of “original sin” was concocted to justify the practice of infant baptism. It is not difficult to see that the practice actually began as a response to emotion and sentiment, rather than as a point of doctrine. There is, of course, no example of infant baptism in the New Testament.

“As infant baptism became even more general, and since baptism was uniformly regarded as administered ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ the practice of infant baptism became a decisive argument for the doctrine of original sin. Such is the case … when Augustine, a bishop in North Africa, secured the triumph of the doctrine of original sin. One of the main arguments was from infant baptism, which had become … an established thing…” (Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, pgs. 60, 61).

Fourth Century Practice

Inscriptions on the tombstones of children from the third century indicate that “baptism” had usually been administered, not soon after birth, but when the death of the child was imminent. Again, the indication would be that the practice of infant baptism was not universal.

Such leaders of the fourth-century church as Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Jerome were grown before they were baptized, even though most of them were from a Christian background (Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, p. 88). In fact, in the fourth century, delay of baptism by many who were brought up in the church was considered a problem by many bishops (Gregory of Nyssa, AD 375, Against Those Who Defer Baptism). It is obvious then, that baptism during the first four centuries was generally administered to those who made an adult decision to enter the way of life.


The apostolic form of baptism was immersion, and it was always administered to adults who had been enlightened by the gospel message. It was a representation of death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12). Not until well into the Middle Ages was infant baptism – by means of pouring water over the head – an enforced doctrine of the church (Catholic Encyclopaedia: “Baptism”). A gradual alteration of the doctrine of adult baptism brought about by human expediency and local tradition led to the compromise of the clear apostolic practice.

J Banta.

  1. ianfj
    August 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Thank you very much for this article. It answers a couple of questions for me: 1) What are the foundations for the doctrine of Original Sin, of which I’m not a fan; and, 2) What is the state of innocence or guilt of infants? If the early church fathers assumed that infants were innocent of their own sins, yet still falling under the consequence of human solidarity in Adam’s sin, that reassures me greatly —explaining why will take too much time 🙂

  2. Jonathan Burke
    August 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    You’re welcome; I’m glad you found it useful.

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