Friday, February 19, 2010

How We Got Infant Baptism

The question must be asked and answered, "Where did infant baptism come from?" We know from the writings of Tertullian, who lived in North Africa, that infant baptism began to be practiced in the second century (A. D. 100s), because he wrote a challenge to this practice. New Testament scholar and Lutheran Kurt Aland wrote an excellent short study of the subject in the early 1960s entitled Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?

Aland carefully examines all the New Testament evidence and writings of the apostolic fathers. He concludes that the New Testament church only baptized professing believers and that the practice of infant baptism developed along side the church's growing understanding of original sin, the concept of baptismal regeneration, and the issue of infant mortality. The earliest instances of infant baptism involved children who were sickly or ill, and the Christian parents feared that these children, if they died, would end up in hell.

The practice of the Church in the Patristic period down to about the fifth century, was to delay baptism. The Cappadocian Fathers, considered some of the greatest theologians fourth century (A. D. 300s), were all from the homes of Christian bishops, and yet they were not baptized until they were grown and in their 20s and 30s. It was St. Augustine who, more than any other, pushed infant baptism into the norm in his anti-Pelagian writings and his defense of the doctrine of original sin.

What can be concluded from this is quite clear. Infant baptism was an innovation of the late second century that gradually grew in acceptance until it became the norm in the late fourth or early fifth century. It was not a biblical practice. It substituted baptism for faith in Christ as the basis for salvation as baptism took on a sacramental meaning, becoming the primary means by which grace was dispensed by the Church through the priesthood.


  1. I love you aj but I disagree. "Baptism now saves you", whole families were baptized during apostolic times (and would they leave out the youngest, I wonder?)

  2. Alicia,

    The household baptism argument involves a huge assumption and argument from silence, especially since Acts 2: 41 says "those who had received his word were baptized." In light of what we know about the NT theology of baptism and the practice of baptism where it is explicitly described in the NT and early church literature, it seems the easier assumption on the "household" baptism texts is that everyone in the household who was baptized was a believer. Note that in Acts 16: 34 and 18: 18, where household baptism is mentioned, it also says that the whole household "believed". Your argument would have to assume that infants also believed if the text is to be read in a straightforward way.

    I would recommend you look for Aland's book that I referenced in today's blog. It's very short and quite readable. He was the premier NT scholar of the 20th century and a Lutheran. In fairness to Aland, in the book he defended the rise and modern practice of infant baptism based on his Lutheran understanding of (1) original sin and (2) the role of baptism in regeneration. At the same time he took a lot of heat from two other premier NT scholars, Oscar Cullman and Joachim Jeremias, for writing this book.

  3. My dear professor, what is the difference between infant baptism and baby dedications?

  4. Infant baptism, in most instances, is viewed as conferring saving grace, or the new birth, on the infant apart from his/her actual faith in Christ (based on the faith of the sponsors in some views; based on the efficacy of the sacrament in others). This is why the baptismal font is called "the laver of regeneration" by some. It sees grace as something that can be dispensed or withheld by the Church. It also places the child on the membership roll of the church, at least in a probationary status (until confirmation). In the event of childhood death the child is presumed to be saved by virtue of its "baptism". In most pedobaptist traditions the notion of a radical conversion is completely missing, baptism having taking the place of a spiritual new birth.

    Baby dedication has none of these trappings but in reality is a pledge on the part of the parents to rear the child in a godly manner with the goal of leading him/her to faith in Christ when he/she is old enough to understand sin, repentance, and faith in Christ. It does not place the child in any sense on the church membership roll or entitle the child to any privileges of the church beyond what any other unconverted attender would enjoy.

    Now, that brings up one teaching in many of our churches that I abhor: the notion that small children who die go to heaven because of some childhood innocence. There is no biblical warrant for such a view. No one enters the Kingdom apart from the new birth because all are born in a state of sin and spiritual death. The Bible is curiously silent on the issue of childhood mortality, but there are indicators that God is merciful to children. Historically, Baptists have tended to believe that God, in mercy, regenerates dying children apart from the means of the gospel, thus making them fit to enter his Kingdom at death. This is not because they deserve it but because he is merciful. Their salvation is all of grace just as is ours.