New Testament Bible Class

Baptism of Infants

My brief mention of baptism on Sunday resulted in a couple interesting comments.  A question about baptizing infants led me to the explanation below that corrects the common incorrect understanding of today that infant baptism was not practiced in the early church and is in fact not biblical.  In fact, babies were not to be hindered from coming to Jesus and were baptized from the earliest days of the Christian faith.  It was not until 1500 years after Jesus’ birth that it became common for infants to be denied baptism!  The highlights below are mine.  Note the explanation of the Greek word for children used in Mark 10:14.  Also, note that Polycarp was baptized as an infant.  He was born in 69 AD.  Now that is about as early in the Christian church as one can get!

Paul  Q. You say that infant baptism is ONE way of salvation. Since this practice was unknown in the New Testament or even the early Catholic church, it is speculative. The Bible says that repentance is a a prerequisite for faith. I repented at five, so it can be early, but not in someone’s arms. A. Infants are included in “all nations” who are to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). Certainly they were included in Peter’s Pentecost exhortation in Acts 2:38, 39: “Repent and be baptized everyone one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins….The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Whole households, everyone in the family, were baptized in the beginning of New Testament times, which in all probability included infants (Acts 16:15 and 33). [The “household” formula used here by Luke has Old Testament precedent, with special reference also to small children, as for example in 1 Sam. 22:16, 19; see Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, 22-23.] In Romans 6, the Holy Spirit tells us in the Word that in baptism we have been united with Jesus’ death and resurrection — regenerated, dying to sin and rising to new life. That happens to infants when baptized (Gal. 3:27). “For as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ.” Baptism through the Word creates the faith necessary to receive salvation for infants. Infants can have faith. In Mark 10:14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The Greek word in this text is “paidia” which means babes in arms.  Infants can belong to the kingdom of God. “From the lips of children and infants, You have ordained praise….” Psalm 8:2. “Yet You brought me out of the womb, You made me trust in You even at my mother’s breast” Psalm 22:9.

From the beginning of New Testament Christianity at Pentecost to our time, unbroken and uninterrupted, the Church has baptized babies.  Polycarp (69-155 AD), a disciple of the Apostle John, was baptized as an infant. Justin Martyr (100-166 AD) of the next generation, about the year 150 AD, states in his Dialog with Trypho The Jew that baptism is the circumcision of the New Testament.” Irenaeus (130-200 AD) writes in Against Heresies II 22:4 that Jesus came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants and children, boys and youth, and old men.”

Similar expressions are found in succeeding generations by Origen (185-254 AD) and Cyprian (215-258 AD), and at the Council of Carthage in 254 where the 66 bishops stated:  “We ought not hinder any person from Baptism and the grace of God….especially infants….those newly born.” Origen wrote in his Commentary on Romans 5:9: “For this also it was that the Church had from the Apostles a tradition to give baptism even to infants.” Origen also wrote in his Homily on Luke 14: “Infants are to be baptized for the remission of sins.” Cyprian’s reply to a bishop who wrote to him regarding the baptism of infants stated: “Should we wait until the 8th day as did the Jews in the circumcision? No, the child should be baptized as soon as it is born.”

Augustine (354-430 AD) wrote in De Genesi Ad Literam, 10:39 declared, “The custom of our mother Church in baptizing infants must not be counted needless, nor believed to be other than a tradition of the Apostles.” Augustine further states: “…the whole Church which hastens to baptize infants, because it unhesitatingly believes that otherwise they cannot possibly be vivified in Christ. In 517 AD, 10 rules of discipline were framed for the Church in Spain. The fifth rule states that “…in case infants were ill…if they were offered, to baptize them, even though it were the day that they were born…such was to be done.” (”The History of Baptism” by Robert Robinson, London, Thomas Knott, 1790, p.269)

This pattern of baptizing infants remained in Christianity through the Dark and Middle Ages until modern times. In the 1500 years from the time of Christ to the Protestant Reformation, the only bonafide opponent to infant baptism was the heretic Tertullian (160-215 AD) who de facto denied original sin. Then in the 1520s the Christian Church experienced opposition specifically to infant baptism under the influence of Thomas Muenzer and other fanatics who opposed both civil and religious authority, original sin and human concupiscence. Thomas’ opposition was then embraced by a considerable number of Swiss, German and Dutch Anabaptists. This brought about strong warning and renunciation by the Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed alike. It was considered a shameless affront to what had been practiced in each generation since Christ’s command in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to baptize all nations irrespective of age.

Historical excerpts are from “Infant Baptism in Early Church History,” by Dr. Dennis Kastens in Issues Etc. Journal, Spring 1997, Vol. 2, No. 3.

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