1.5.1 Mission: Past and Present

Infant Baptism

Eberhard Beilharz
16 March 2000

Copyright © 2000 Eberhard Beilharz


  1. Introduction
  2. What is baptism?
  3. Where does baptism come from?
  4. Infant Baptism through the history
    1. Infant Baptism in the New Testament
    2. Infant Baptism in the first two centuries
    3. Infant Baptism after the third century
    4. Infant Baptism and the Reformation
  5. Theological Issues for Infant Baptism
    1. Circumcision
    2. Original Sin
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography

1 Introduction

One of the issues where Christians have very different views is the subject of baptism. Some churches baptise infants while in other churches baptism is performed as a sign of repentance and faith and therefore not possible for children. The following essay tries to give an overview of the biblical foundations for baptism and the development and views through the history of the Church. As we will see the discussion on infant baptism is nearly as old as the Church itself.

2 What is Baptism?

When we look at the statements of the Bible on baptism and what baptism means, we see that the Bible speaks of baptism in connection with repentance and forgiveness [1]. Baptism is a symbol of the new birth[2] and new life[3], of the washing and cleansing of sins and of justification[4]. Paul writes in his letters that in baptism we join Christ's death and resurrection[5].

Baptism is a sign of incorporation into Christ[6]. It is the beginning of the life with and for Christ[7].

"Baptism is a sign of salvation (both of God's grace, who gives it, and of our faith, which receives it); bringing us into new life in Christ; so that we belong to the Body of Christ and receive the Spirit of Christ."[8] Michael Green wrote: Christian baptism "is the rite of entry into the Christian church. It is ineffective until there is repentance and faith, but it stresses the initiative of God."[9] It is only effective "when it encounters the water of repentance and sunshine of faith."[10]

There are different views of the effects of baptism. Catholics see baptism mainly as a sign of new birth. This view has the danger to see justification rise from baptism instead of faith. The Protestant view sees baptism mainly as a symbol, which doesn't do anything. This position is contrary to the New Testament, which clearly states that we are saved, born again, put on Christ etc. through baptism.

3 Where does baptism come from?

Christian baptism has its roots in the baptism of John the Baptist and in the proselyte baptism. The proselyte baptism came in the inter-testamental period in the first or second century BC. When a family wanted to convert to Judaism, all male members of the family had to be circumcised. In addition, every member of the family needed to be baptised. This was a symbolic washing for the 'unclean' gentiles. "It has been suggested that the origin of the rite is traceable to the need for women converted to Judaism to have an appropriate ceremony of initiation, since circumcision was not applicable to them. There is, however, no reference to it in the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say that a Gentile convert to Judaism should be baptised."[11] "A child's inability to make promises was regarded as no hindrance. It was agreed that action could be taken on behalf of another, provided it was for his good."[12]

Normally converts to Judaism had to be both circumcised and baptised, but certain leaders of the Tannaitic era thought that baptism alone was sufficient.

4 Infant Baptism through the history

4.1 Infant Baptism in the New Testament

Although the New Testament mentions Christian baptism several times, it doesn't mention baptism of infants. However, in the opinion of several scholars there is reason that infant baptism is mentioned indirectly when the Bible speaks of the baptism of households (e.g. Acts 16:15, 16:33; 1 Cor 1:16). These scholars think that the term 'household', which was already used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, included the children, and so the children were also baptised when the parents were baptised. The reasons were the importance of the 'corporate personality' and 'family solidarity' in the ancient world, where the father determined the faith of the household. If the father became a Christian, the family usually followed him. "Baptism in the New Testament was an eschatological sacrament, signifying deliverance from the last judgment. In that situation, an omission of any member of the family, however young, would be thinkable."[13]

Other scholars argue that the word for 'household' was used many times in the New Testament, but only in a few occurrences with the meaning 'family', i.e. people in a house. They conclude therefore that only those suitable for baptism would receive it.

4.2 Infant Baptism in the first two centuries

The discussion among scholars if and to what extend infant baptism was practised continues for the time of the early church. There were only a few unambiguous references to infant baptism, on most passages the scholars disagree on the interpretation.

Justin Martyr's (c. 100 - 165) description of baptism appears to rule out infants. "The rite is offered only to 'all who are persuaded and believe that the things taught and declared by us are true and who promise that they can live accordingly'. They must seek forgiveness with prayer and fasting. This is followed by baptism in the threefold name, followed by prayer, the kiss of brotherhood and finally the Eucharist in bread, wine and water."[14] It may be possible that he indirectly mentioned infant baptism at the end of the first century, but again scholars aren't agreed.

In the Western Church Aristide wrote about baptism. He recommended the postponement of baptism even of the children of Christian parents until they are old enough to understand the subject.

Irenaeus, who was Bishop of Lyons in the second half of the second century, wrote about Christ: "For he came to save all through means of himself - all, I say, who through him are born again to God... - infants and children and boys and youth and old men."[15] Again, not all scholars agree that Irenaeus meant baptism when he used the term 'born again'.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 155 - c. 220) spoke about baptism but didn't mention infant baptism. This could be interpreted either that he had no interest in infant baptism, or that it didn't exist in his time. He wrote that baptism is "for forgiveness of past sins and relates to 'the repentance of a one-time unbeliever.' … It is a rite which presupposes that 'the foundation of redemption is the faith that proceeds from a man's volition' and is therefore not applicable to young children."[16]

Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 160 - 215), preferred the postponement of the baptism of children of pagan parents until they are old enough to understand the Christian Faith and can confess Christ. He taught that sinfulness begins at about the 14th year of life. This means that there is no necessity to baptise infants, because there is no 'original sin' and no need for cleansing. He considered repentance as a pre-requisite of baptism.

4.3 Infant Baptism after the third century

A clear and increasing evidence of the existence of infant baptism begins in the third century. "From the second century onwards, many of those who became Christians were born of Christian parents, and apparently for this reason infant baptism came to be widespread early in the third century."[17] In addition, pagan influence and superstition affected the understanding of baptism.

Origen (185 - 254) mentioned that "infant baptism was a custom reaching back to apostolic times"[18], and was custom in the Eastern Church. He refutes the idea that infants do not need baptism. Some scholars deny that it was really an apostolic tradition, because Origen defended infant baptism, which would be unnecessary if it was a widespread custom. He taught that baptism is necessary as cleansing from the pollution acquired at birth and the need to remove by this rite the sins committed in a previous life.

Hippolytus, who died c. 236, talked about baptism for adults. Candidates for baptism were carefully chosen and instructed in the Christian faith. They were treated as church members, but were not admitted to the Eucharist and the kiss of peace. In his 'Church Order' he wrote a chapter on baptism: "First, the little ones should be baptized. All who can speak for themselves should speak. For those, however, who cannot, their parents or another who belongs to the family should speak."[19]

"Cyprian (c. 200 - 258), Bishop of Carthage, in the middle of the third century, wrote a letter to Bishop Fidus, conveying the unanimous decision of the North African bishops, that infants should be baptized on the second or third day after birth and not, as Fidus had suggested, on the eighth day in order to correspond with circumcision. This appears to be the first clear evidence for the baptism of newborn babies."[20]

It seems that Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315 - 386) didn't perform infant baptism. His catechetical lectures were clearly designed for adults. "Cyril's 'Mystagogical Catecheses' dealt with a highly developed and complicated liturgy that no child, let alone infant, would be able to participate in or appreciate in any meaningful way."[21]

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 325 - 390) wrote that baptism should be deferred until a child is old enough to understand and respond to baptismal questions. A child should be at least 3 years old, so that it can hear and answer something about the sacrament. He "distinguishes between the baptism of infants and adults by pointing out that for infants it is no more than a 'seal', whereas for adults it is a 'cure' for sin and also the 'best seal' - a recovery of grace and of the image of God. He sees infant baptism solely as a dedication to God."[22]

Chrysostom (c. 345 - 407) compared the infant baptism with the circumcision of the old covenant.

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) developed a theological foundation. "He held that infant baptism was necessary because of the original sin and guilt which every child has inherited from Adam, following 'the fall'."[23] The original sin is removed at baptism but the tendency to sin remains. The Holy Spirit is given at baptism even to infants.

In contrast, Pelagius held that baptism was a mystery through which everybody, even infants, could receive regeneration and salvation. Infants need baptism not for forgiveness of sins but as the gateway into the kingdom.

Infant baptism was very widespread in the Middle Ages and exceeded any others. Often the infants were involved in a ritual that was much more suited for adults.

Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274) taught that a child needs baptism to effect regeneration and to eradicate original sin. "While recognizing that an infant could not exercise the faith required by this rite, he held that the faith of the parents and the church could serve as a substitute and ensure for the child a dying and rising with Christ."[24] He thought that baptism, confirmation and ordination were not repeatable. In his times the Western Church began to use sprinkling rather than immersion for infants, whereas immersion continued in the Eastern Church.

4.4 Infant Baptism and the Reformation

The Reformers had several objections against the rite of baptism. They criticised the unnecessary elements, which have given rise to superstition. Often the church congregation wasn't involved because it was a private baptism. Not enough thought was given to the choice of suitable godparents, and the service lacked meaning because it was in Latin.

"Despite the Reformers' emphasis on personal faith, most of them were in favour of infant baptism. Since their faith was founded on Scripture, they felt bound to seek support for the baptism of infants in the New Testament."[25] They held the covenant promised to Abraham was extended through the New Covenant. Infant baptism equals the circumcision in the Old Covenant. Christ's welcome of little children was interpreted to mean that the church should receive infants into the church by baptism. They argued from 1 Cor 7:14 that if the children of one believing parent are 'holy', then the children of two believing parents are also 'holy'. This qualifies them for baptism. Last, the households baptised in the New Testament must have included children.

Martin Luther was in conflict with infant baptism. "As one would expect, Luther rejected the Catholic view of ex opere operato in relation to infant baptism. Yet he saw the infant rite as well illustrating how helpless humanity can be saved by the grace of God - for faith, without grace, is not enough."[26] He held that faith is unconsciously present in the infant. The baptised child has a new relationship to God, which involves forgiveness and salvation. As the child grows up, it will come to understand the meaning of baptism.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484 - 1531) shared Luther's doubts regarding the validity of infant baptism. "'If we were to baptize as Christ instituted it, then we would not baptize any person until he reached the years of discretion, for I find infant baptism nowhere written or practised' in the New Testament. 'But we must practise it now so as not to offend our fellow men.'"[27]

The Anabaptists practised believers' baptism. They thought that the Church consists of Christians who had been called out from the world by believers' baptism. Such convictions were in their view inconsistent with infant baptism.

For John Calvin (1509 - 1564) the personal experience was less important than the priority of grace of baptism. "He held that the divine initiative justifies, and is illustrated by, infant baptism. He makes clear that baptism is conditional upon the Divine decree. This election antedates our birth for 'God adopts our babies before they are born.'"[28]

5 Theological Issues for Infant Baptism

5.1 Circumcision

As we have seen, many compared infant baptism with circumcision. Paul describes circumcision as a seal of righteousness[29], whereas in other passages he uses the expression seal in connection with baptism.[30] This encourages this comparison.

Calvin recognised that baptism requires repentance, but he stated that this applied also to circumcision.[31] Herbert Wood wrote: "The rule that baptism should follow faith is not invariable, for circumcision comes after faith in Abraham and before intelligence in Isaac. … The parallel with circumcision was the chief ground for defending infant baptism as agreeable to the scriptures, while Mark 10:14f and 1 Cor 7:14 were the chief reasons for supposing it to be agreeable with the institution of Christ."[32]

Gen 17:11 describes circumcision as the mark of the covenant with Abraham. Even this covenant was based on grace. "The grace of God is met by the faith of Abraham. … Men and women were saved in the Old Testament in just the same way as they were in the New Testament - by the sheer undeserved generosity of God, to which they respond in adoring trust: the grace-faith reciprocal."[33]

Circumcision produced no automatism, as we can see from the examples of Esau and Ishmael. The heart and the inner reality must correspond with the outer sign.

Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that we are Abraham's offspring because we belong to Christ[34]. Therefore baptism corresponds to circumcision. Baptism "is a mark of the covenant or agreement between God's grace and our response. Not just of his grace, nor just of our response. It is the seal both on his initiative and our response."[35] It's the same for baptism as for circumcision, that it isn't automatically effective, but needs an inner response.

5.2 Original Sin

There is little evidence in the Bible for original sin. The phrase 'original sin' was first introduced by Tertullian. The idea is that there is beside the own sin inherited sin. The former is caused by our own wrongdoings; the latter is caused by Adam's fall. A newborn baby does not have own sin, because it hasn't done anything so far, but it has inherited sin. For this inherited sin it needs baptism to be saved.

The theory of original sin derives not so much from the Bible but from a Stoic understanding of the soul's origin.

6 Conclusion

As we have seen, the discussion on infant baptism is very old. It can easily become a question for every church that has second generation Christians.

There are reasons that speak for infant baptism. It can be seen as a sign that corresponds with the circumcision of the covenant with Abraham and Israel. It is a sign of God's grace which needs a human response.

On the other hand, there are reasons that speak against infant baptism. Baptism can be seen as response to God and as a sign of faith. The Bible doesn't speak clearly of infant baptism.

Because the Bible is not dogmatic on this topic, we shouldn't lay to much emphasis on this issue. I think that the unity amongst Christians and the Churches is more important. The Bible doesn't give clear directions on this issue, so we should accept infant baptism, but should also accept those who prefer believers' baptism.

It should be clear why we baptise infants. I think the reason is not salvation from original sin, but as a sign of God's grace and of his outstretched hand that waits for our response.

7 Bibliography

Corrie, J.: The Doctrine of the Church (Lectures at ANCC, 2000)

Green, M.: Baptism (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987)

Jeremias, J.: Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (London: SCM, 1960)

Yates, A. S.: Why Baptize Infants? (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1993)

[1] Mark 1:4

[2] John 3:5

[3] Ro 6:3f

[4] 1 Cor 6:11

[5] Ro 6:3f; Col 2:11f

[6] Gal. 3:27

[7] Ro 6:4; Col 3:1f

[8] Corrie, handout for lecture 6 on Baptism

[9] Green, p. 53

[10] Green, p. 56

[11] Yates, p. 86

[12] ibid., p. 87

[13] ibid., p. 19

[14] ibid., p. 45

[15] cited in Yates, p. 38

[16] ibid., pp. 39 - 40

[17] Robert Grant, cited in Yates, p. 55

[18] Jeremias, p. 66

[19] cited in Yates, p. 40

[20] Yates, p. 60

[21] ibid., p. 61

[22] ibid.

[23] ibid.

[24] ibid., p. 66

[25] ibid., p. 68

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid., p. 70

[28] ibid., p. 73

[29] Ro 4:11

[30] 2 Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13, 4:30

[31] Jer 4:4

[32] cited in Yates, p. 95

[33] Green, p. 24

[34] Gal 3:29

[35] Green, p. 25