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§ 73. Infant Baptism.


On Infant Baptism comp. Just. M.: Dial. c. Tryph. Jud. c. 43. IREN.: Adv. Haer. II. 22, § 4, compared with III. 17, § 1, and other passages. Tertul.: De Baptismo, c. 18. Cypr.: Epist. LIX. ad Fidum. Clem. Alex.: Paedag. III. 217. Orig.: Com. in Rom. V. Opp. IV. 565, and Homil. XIV. in Luc.

See Lit. in vol. I. 463sq., especially Wall. Comp. also W. R. Powers: Irenaeusand Infant Baptism, in the "Am. Presb. and Theol. Rev." N. Y. 1867, pp. 239–267.


While the church was still a missionary institution in the midst of a heathen world, infant baptism was overshadowed by the baptism of adult proselytes; as, in the following periods, upon the union of church and state, the order was reversed. At that time, too, there could, of course, be no such thing, even on the part of Christian parents, as a compulsory baptism, which dates from Justinian’s reign, and which inevitably leads to the profanation of the sacrament. Constantine sat among the fathers at the great Council of Nicaea, and gave legal effect to its decrees, and yet put off his baptism to his deathbed. The cases of Gregory of Nazianzum, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustin, who had mothers of exemplary piety, and yet were not baptized before early manhood, show sufficiently that considerable freedom prevailed in this respect even in the Nicene and post-Nicene ages. Gregory of Nazianzum gives the advice to put off the baptism of children, where there is no danger of death, to their third year.452452    Orat. XL.52

At the same time it seems an almost certain fact, though by many disputed, that, with the baptism of converts, the optional baptism of the children of Christian parents in established congregations, comes down from the apostolic age.453453    Comp. I. 469 sq. The fact is not capable of positive proof, but rests on strong probabilities. The Baptists deny it. So does Neander, but lie approves the practice of infant baptism as springing from the spirit of Christianity.53 Pious parents would naturally feel a desire to consecrate their offspring from the very beginning to the service of the Redeemer, and find a precedent in the ordinance of circumcision. This desire would be strengthened in cases of sickness by the prevailing notion of the necessity of baptism for salvation. Among the fathers, Tertullian himself not excepted—for he combats only its expediency—there is not a single voice against the lawfulness and the apostolic origin of infant baptism. No time can be fixed at which it was first introduced. Tertullian suggests, that it was usually based on the invitation of Christ: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not." The usage of sponsors, to which Tertullian himself bears witness, although he disapproves of it, and still more, the almost equally ancient abuse of infant communion, imply the existence of infant baptism. Heretics also practised it, and were not censured for it.

The apostolic fathers make, indeed, no mention of it. But their silence proves nothing; for they hardly touch upon baptism at all, except Hermas, and he declares it necessary to salvation, even for the patriarchs in Hades (therefore, as we may well infer, for children also). Justin Martyr expressly teaches the capacity of all men for spiritual circumcision by baptism; and his "all" can with the less propriety be limited, since he is here speaking to a Jew.454454    Dial. c. Tr. c. 43.54 He also says that many old men and women of sixty and seventy years of age have been from childhood disciples of Christ.455455    Apol. l.c. 15 (Otto 1. 48): οἱ ἐκ παίδων ἐμαθητεύθησαν τῷ Χριστῷ55 Polycarp was eighty-six years a Christian, and must have been baptized in early youth. According to Irenaeus, his pupil and a faithful bearer of Johannean tradition, Christ passed through all the stages of life, to sanctify them all, and came to redeem, through himself, "all who through him are born again unto God, sucklings, children, boys, youths, and adults."456456    Adv. Haer. II. 22, § 4: "Omnes venit per semetipsum salvare; omnes, inquam qui per cum renascuntur in Deum, infantes et parvulos et pueros et juvenes et seniores. Ideo per omnem venit aetatem, et infantibus infans factus, sanctificans infantes; in parvulis parvulus, sanctificans hanc ipsam habentes aetatem; simul et exemplunt illis pietatis effectus et justitae et subjectionis, in juvenibus juvenis," etc. Neander, in discussing this passage remarks, that" from this idea, founded on what is inmost in Christianity, becoming prominent in the feeling of Christians, resulted the practice of infant baptism" (I. 312, Boston ed.)56 This profound view seems to involve an acknowledgment not only of the idea of infant baptism, but also of the practice of it; for in the mind of Irenaeus and the ancient church baptism and regeneration were intimately connected and almost identified.457457    Irenaeus speaks of "the washing of regeneration, " and of the "baptism of regeneration unto God,"τὸ βάπτισμα τῆς εἰς θεὸν ἀναγεννήσεως (Adv. Haer. l.c. 21, § 1); he identifies the apostolic commission to baptize with the potestas regenerationis in Deum (III. 17, § 1); he says that Christ descending into Hades, regenerated the ancient patriarchs (III. c. 22, § 4; "in sinum suum recipiens pristinos patres regeneravit eos in vitam Dei"), by which he probably meant baptism (according to the fancy of Hermas, Clement of Alex., and others). Compare an examination of the various passages of Irenaeus in the article by Powers, who comes to the conclusion (l.c. p. 267) that " Irenaeus everywhere implies baptism in the regeneration he so often names."57 In an infant, in fact, any regeneration but through baptism cannot be easily conceived. A moral and spiritual regeneration, as distinct from sacramental, would imply conversion, and this is a conscious act of the will, an exercise of repentance and faith, of which the infant is not capable.

In the churches of Egypt infant baptism must have been practised from the first. For, aside from some not very clear expressions of Clement of Alexandria, Origen distinctly derives it from the tradition of the apostles; and through his journeys in the East and West he was well acquainted with the practice of the church in his time.458458    In Ep. ad Rom. (Opera, vol. IV. col. 1047 ed. Migne; or IV. 565 ed. Delarue): "Pro hoc et Ecclesia ab apostolis traditionem suscepit, etiam parvulis baptismum dare." In Levit. Hom. VIII. (II. 496 in Migne), he says that "secundum Ecclesiae observantiam" baptism was given also to children (etiam parvulis). Comp. his Com. in Matt. XV. (III. 1268 sqq.) where he seems to infer this custom from the example of Christ blessing little children. That Origen himself was baptized in childhood (185 or soon after), is nowhere expressly stated in his works (as far as I know), but may be inferred as probable from his descent of, and early religious instruction, by Christian parents (reported by Euseb H. E. VI. 19: τῷὈριγένει τὰ τῆς κατὰ Χριστὸν διδασκαλίας ἐκ προγόνων ἐσώζετο), in connection with the Egyptian custom. Comp. Redepenning, Origenes, I. 49. It would certainly be more difficult to prove that be was not baptized in infancy. He could easily make room for infant baptism in his theological system, which involved the Platonic idea of a prehistoric fall of the individual soul. But the Cyprianic and Augustinian theology connected it with the historic fall of Adam, and the consequent hereditary depravity and guilt.58

The only opponent of infant baptism among the fathers is the eccentric and schismatic Tertullian, of North Africa. He condemns the hastening of the innocent age to the forgiveness of sins, and intrusting it with divine gifts, while we would not commit to it earthly property.459459    ’Quid festinat innocens aetas ad remissionem peccatorum?" The" innocens" here is to be taken only in a relative sense; for Tertullian in other plain teaches a vitium originis, or hereditary sin and guilt, although not as distinctly and clearly as Augustin59 Whoever considers the solemnity of baptism, will shrink more from the receiving, than from the postponement of it. But the very manner of Tertullian’s opposition proves as much in favor of infant baptism as against it. He meets it not as an innovation, but as a prevalent custom; and he meets it not with exegetical nor historical arguments, but only with considerations of religious prudence. His opposition to it is founded on his view of the regenerating effect of baptism, and of the impossibility of having mortal sins forgiven in the church after baptism; this ordinance cannot be repeated, and washes out only the guilt contracted before its reception. On the same ground he advises healthy adults, especially the unmarried, to postpone this sacrament until they shall be no longer in danger of forfeiting forever the grace of baptism by committing adultery, murder, apostasy, or any other of the seven crimes which he calls mortal sins. On the same principle his advice applies only to healthy children, not to sickly ones, if we consider that he held baptism to be the indispensable condition of forgiveness of sins, and taught the doctrine of hereditary sin. With him this position resulted from moral earnestness, and a lively sense of the great solemnity of the baptismal vow. But many put off baptism to their death-bed, in moral levity and presumption, that they might sin as long as they could.

Tertullian’s opposition, moreover, had no influence, at least no theoretical influence, even in North Africa. His disciple Cyprian differed from him wholly. In his day it was no question, whether the children of Christian parents might and should be baptized—on this all were agreed,—but whether they might be baptized so early as the second or third day after birth, or, according to the precedent of the Jewish circumcision, on the eighth day. Cyprian, and a council of sixty-six bishops held at Carthage in 253 under his lead, decided for the earlier time, yet without condemning the delay.460460    A later council of Carthage of the year 418 went further and decreed: "item placuit, ut quicunque parvulos recentes ab uteris matrum baptizandos negat ... anathema sit."60 It was in a measure the same view of the almost magical effect of the baptismal water, and of its absolute necessity to salvation, which led Cyprian to hasten, and Tertullian to postpone the holy ordinance; one looking more at the beneficent effect of the sacrament in regard to past sins, the other at the danger of sins to come.



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