"Unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven ”
Some New Testament Texts: Matthew 18:1-4; 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Ephesians 6:1-4.
Innocence of Infants
V.1HERMAS: Those who believed are such as these: They are like innocent infants, in whose heart no wickedness enters and who do not know what evil is but always remain in innocence. Such as these will undoubtedly live in the kingdom of God, because in no way did they defile the commandments of God but innocently remained in the same frame of mind all the days of their life. As many of you then who will continue and be as infants, with no wickedness, will be more honored than all others, for all infants are honored before God and are in the first rank before him. Blessed are all of you, therefore, who remove evil from yourselves and put on guiltlessness. (Similitudes 9.29.1-3=106.1-3)
2I, the angel of repentance, judge all of you to be blessed who are as innocent as infants, because your part is good and honorable before God. (Ibid. 9.31.3=108.3)
3Have sincerity and be innocent, and you shall be as children, who do not know the evil which destroys the life of men. (Mandate 2.1=27.1)
4BARNABAS: Since he renewed us in the forgiveness of sins, he made us into another image, so as to have the soul of children, as if he were indeed refashioning us. (6.11)
5ARISTIDES: And when a child has been born to one of them [Christians], they give thanks to God; and if it should die as an infant, they give thanks the more, because it has departed life sinless. (Apology 15.11)1
6ATHENAGORAS: Although all human beings who die are resurrected, not all those resurrected are judged. If justice in the judgment were the only cause of the resurrection, it would follow, of course, that those who have not sinned nor done good, namely quite young children, would not be resurrected. (On the Resurrection 14)
7CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: We have shown that not only are all of us called children by Scripture, but also that we who have followe d Christ are figuratively spoken of as babes. (Instructor 184.108.40.206)2
8And if there should be one fishing, it will remind you of the apostle and the children drawn out of the water. (Ibid. 220.127.116.11)3
9[After quoting Job 1:21] Not naked of possessions (for this is a trivial and common thing), but, as a just man, he departs naked of evil and sin. . . . For this was what was said . . . [Matthew 18:3] pure in flesh, holy in soul by abstinence from evil deeds; God shows that he would have us to be such as he has generated us from our mother, the water. (Miscellanies 18.104.22.168-2)
10IRENAEUS: Who were those who were saved and received the inheritance? Those, obviously, who believed in God and kept their love for him, such as Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun, and innocent children, who have no sense of evil. Who are those now who are saved and receive eternal life? Is it not those who love God and believe his promises and “in malice have become little children”? (Against Heresies 4.28.3)
Evidence for Baptism of Children
11IRENAEUS: 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 people, and old people. (Against Heresies 2.22.4)
12TERTULLIAN: According to the circumstances and nature, and also age, of each person, the delay of baptism is more suitable, especially in the case of small children. What is the necessity, if there is no such necessity, for the sponsors as well to be brought into danger, since they may fail to keep their promises by reason of death or be deceived by an evil disposition which grows up in the child? The Lord indeed says, “Do not forbid them to come to me.” Let them “come” then while they are growing up, while they are learning, while they are instructed why they are coming. 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.” (On Baptism 18)
13HIPPOLYTUS: And they shall baptise the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family. And next they shall baptise the grown men; and last the women. (Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5)4
14ORIGEN: I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. 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.” (Homily on Luke 14.5)
15[After quoting Psalm 51:5 and Job 14:4] These verses may be adduced when it is asked why, since the baptism of the church is given for the remission of sins, baptism according to the practice of the church is given even to infants; since indeed if there is in infants nothing which ought to pertain to forgiveness and mercy, the grace of baptism would be superfluous. (Homily on Leviticus 8.3)
16[After quoting Leviticus 12:8 and Psalm 51:5] For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit. On account of these stains the body itself is called the body of sin. (Commentary on Romans 5.19)
17CYPRIAN: If, when they afterwards come to believe, forgiveness of sins is granted even to the worst transgressors and to those who have previously sinned much against God, and if no one is held back from baptism and grace; how much less ought an infant to be held back, who having been born recently has not sinned, except in that being born physically according to Adam, the infant has contracted the contagion of the ancient death by its first birth. The infant approaches that much more easily to the reception of the forgiveness of sins because the sins remitted to it are not its own, but those of another. (Epistle 64 )
18Eusebius, an infant, going to the place of the saints, being without sin through his age, rests in peace.5
19Sweet Tyche lived one year, ten months, fifteen days, Received [grace] on the eighth day before the Kalends. Gave up [her soul] on the same day. (Inscriptiones latinae christianae veteres, Vol. I, number 1531)6
20Postumius Eutenion, a believer, who obtained holy grace the day before his birthday at a very late hour and died. He lived six years and was buried on the fifth of Ides of July on the day of Jupiter on which he was born. His soul is with the saints in peace. Felicissimus, Eutheria, and Festa his grandmother to their worthy son Postumius. (ILCV 1:1524, from the early fourth century)
21Irene who lived with her parents ten months and six days received [grace] seven days before the Ides of April and gave up [her soul] on the Ides of April. (ILCV 1:1532)
22To the sacred divine dead. Florentius made this monument to his worthy son Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months, and five days. Since he was dearly loved by his grandmother, and she saw that he was going to die, she asked from the church that he might depart from the world a believer. (ILCV 1:1343, from the third century)
23Pastor, Titiana, Marciana, and Chreste made this for Marcianus, their worthy son in Christ, who lived twelve years, two months, and . . . days, who received [grace] on the twelfth day before the Kalends of October, Marianus and Patemus the second time being consuls, and gave up [his soul] on the eleventh day before the Kalends. Live among the saints in eternity. (ILCV 11:3315, dated A.D. 268)
24Innocent, the neophyte, lived twenty-three years. (ILCV 1:1484)
25To Paulinus, the neophyte, in peace, who lived eight years. (ILCV 1:1484 B)
26To Proiecto, neophyte infant, who lived two years seven months. (ILCV 1:1484 C)
27To the worthy Antonia Cyriaceti who lived nineteen years, two months, twenty-six days. Received the grace of God and died a virgin on the fourth day. Julius Benedictus her father set this up for his most sweet and incomparable daughter. Twelfth of Kalends of December. (ILCV 1:1529, dated A.D. 363)
Innocence of Infants
The early Christian feeling about the innocence of infants finds clear expression in second-century authors and in the writer who makes the first explicit reference to infant baptism in Christian history, Tertullian (V.l-10, 12).7 Innocence here meant sinlessness, or at least guiltlessness. The author who is the clearest is the apologist Aristides (V.5); therefore his testimony has been much discussed. The presence of this passage in fourth-century Greek papyri testifies to its genuineness. The phrase about “passed through the world without sins” suggests that the child entered the world without sin and departed in the same condition. There is no suggestion of baptism as the reason for this sinless condition. Indeed elsewhere Aristides (Apology 15.6) speaks of the Christians using persuasion in making disciples of children:
If they should have bondmen and bondwomen or children,they persuade them to become Christians in order that they might be friends, and when they have become such, they call them brethren without distinction.
In the other passages the baby is the standard of purity and innocence. The whole language of “rebirth” in connection with baptism implies the guiltlessness of the infant.8 The idea is the return to an original purity that would be meaningless if the child were thought of as sinful. If the saved were compared to infants, then surely infants were considered saved. Early Christian art often depicts the one being baptized as a naked child (or more accurately a diminutive adult), not because he is in fact a child (Christ is himself so shown) but because of the new birth symbolism.9 As in early Christian art in general the meaning more than the actual event is being portrayed. Clement of Alexandria goes behind the infant and declares that “even the seed of the sanctified is holy.”10
This feeling plus the stress on baptism for the remission of sins explains why there is no early reference to infant baptism. It was actually the growth of the practice of infant baptism which led to a changed view of the spiritual condition of the infant. We seek in this chapter the evidence in regard to infant, and not just child baptism.
Baptism of Infants
The earliest plausible reference to infant baptism is to be found in Irenaeus (V.11). Earlier passages have been appealed to: Polycarp declared at his trial, “Eighty-six years have I served my king.”11 Justin speaks of “many men and women of the age of sixty and seventy years who have been disciples of Christ from childhood.”12 These passages imply nothing about the age of baptism and are as easily explained from the believers’ baptism standpoint as from a pedobaptist standpoint. With Irenaeus the situation appears to be different. 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, again, 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.13 “Born again” may refer to Christ’s renewing work and not specifically to baptism. Even if it does mean the same as “regeneration” does elsewhere in Irenaeus, this passage may be rhetorical and not imply that infants actually received baptism. Nevertheless, the practice of baptizing infants must have begun about Irenaeus’ time, and this passage has the best claim to be the first reference to the practice.
The first unambiguous reference is to be found in Tertullian (V. 12), and he was opposed to the practice. Tertullian was not talking about a tendency or a hypothetical situation. The practice was present and had its defenders. On the other hand, Tertullian was enough of a traditionalist in his early career that it hardly seems likely that he would oppose a practice of long standing or general acceptance. He seems to be stating, as elsewhere in his treatise On Baptism (which has an anti-heretical thrust), the common position of the church. He does not sound like an innovator fighting an established custom. North Africa continued to be the place where infant baptism had its strongest support, and it may be that this was the region where it began.
Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition (V.13) tells us how baptism was administered in the early third century, and presumably he is describing practices which in their main outlines if not in all details reach back into the second century. His baptismal ceremony is clearly designed for those of responsible age, who can pass through a catechumenate, fast, renounce the Devil, confess their faith, and join in the communion.14 This description, as all the other ancient liturgies of baptism, clearly presupposes those of accountable age, and the provision for sponsors was an awkward adjustment for those who could not answer for themselves. The confession of faith was considered so integral to the baptismal act that it could not be dispensed with even for those unable to make their own confession.
The writings of Origen provide the first claim that infant baptism was an apostolic custom delivered to the church (V. 16). We do not know on what basis this assertion is made, but it may be an inference from John 3:5, the importance of which in the development of infant baptism will be noted further below, or from the interpretation of Matthew 19:14, which was already being cited in Tertullian’s time in defense of the practice. Of the passages from Origen on infant baptism only the one from Homilies on Luke (V. 14) survives in Greek, and his Latin translators were not always faithful. Origen did refer to infant baptism, but perhaps full confidence cannot be put in every phrase found only in the Latin.
Origen affords evidence that the practice preceded the theological justification (V.14, 15). The sequence was infant baptisms then the doctrine of infant sinfulness, and not a doctrine of original sin leading to the practice of infant baptism. The reasons for baptizing a child were being discussed. The child did not have sins of his own. Origen’s answer was that a stain attaches to birth. This is not yet a doctrine of original sin (that is, the inheritance of the guilt of Adam’s transgression), for Origen in the Homily on Luke 14.3 contrasts sin and stain and says the latter attached to Jesus by reason of his taking a human body (and so the necessity of purification in Luke 2:22).
The same relationship between infant baptism and infant sin appears in the writings of Cyprian (V.17). He is the first clear theological exponent of the baptism of new-born babes. His letter conveys the answer of the North African bishops to an inquiry whether infant baptism should be given on the eighth day. The answer allows for the immediate baptism after birth. The unanimous reply indicates a long-standing and generally accepted practice. Cyprian is consistent and speaks of infant communion too. Tertullian’s opposition had been put down. Cyprian’s argument is that if baptism is effective in the case of hardened sinners, then how much more is it a means of grace to one whose only stain comes from another (Adam). Ceremonial uncleanness from the Old Testament has a definite connection with the development of the doctrine of original sin in the speculations of the first theologians to suggest this view of the infant–Origen and Cyprian. They were both reasoning from the practice to the doctrine, offering a theological justification for a practice that had come to be accepted. They were responding to questions raised by the anomaly of baptizing infants, since infants had no sins.
As infant baptism became even more general, and since baptism was uniformly regarded as administered “for the forgiveness of sins,”15 the practice of infant baptism became a decisive argument for the doctrine of original sin. Such is the case in the Pelagian controversy at the beginning of the fifth century when Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, secured the triumph of the doctrine of original sin. One of his main arguments was from infant baptism,16 which had become such an established thing that Pelagius, who denied original sin, could not deny the appropriateness of baptizing children.
Infant baptism did not immediately after its introduction become the uniform practice. There are many instances where children in Christian homes in the fourth century were not baptized until their mature years. Such great leaders of the fourth-century church as Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, and many others were grown before they were baptized.17 In fact, in the fourth century the delay of baptism became a problem. The feeling developed that such a powerful sacrament which brought forgiveness of all sins should not be utilized too early but reserved until a time when the maximum benefits could be secured. This was, of course, a one-sided and distorted understanding of the doctrine of baptism, and church leaders protested against this delay.18 But this misunderstanding is hardly the reason that sons of bishops, such as Gregory of Nazianzus, or children from the homes with the longest Christian heritage and deepest spiritual piety, such as that from which Basil came, were not baptized as infants. The extraordinary delay of baptism was a perversion of the usual practice of allowing children to reach a responsible age before being baptized rather than a revolutionary phenomenon.
The Testimony of the Inscriptions
Early Christian inscriptions, which in the largest numbers come from the environs of Rome, furnish some instances of child and infant baptism for the third century. Inscriptions which can be identified as Christian begin in the late second century, but only in the third century is the number of dated inscriptions significant.19 Nearly all of the early Christian inscriptions are epitaphs. A considerable number of these are for the graves of children. The vast majority give no indication whether the child was baptized or not.20 Presence in a Christian catacomb or the use of phrases like in pace (“in peace”) do not furnish evidence of baptism. Nor may it safely be concluded that absence of an explicit statement implies that the child was not baptized. Yet, those inscriptions making specific reference to baptism create a presumption against its presence where it is not mentioned.
Actually, the word “baptism” is seldom used. The idea is expressed by “received grace,” “made a believer,” or “neophyte” (“newly planted” used to mean “newly baptized”). The earliest Christian art and inscriptions were reticent about explicit reference to things Christian.
Children of various ages, from a few months to twelve years, are spoken of as receiving baptism a short time before their death. These were cases of “emergency baptism” where parents did not want them to die unbaptized. Nearly all of the cases of infant or child baptism noted in the inscriptions fall into this category. Parents wanted it known that their child died baptized. Perhaps it is unsafe to generalize from what may be exceptional cases. In the nature of the case we are not told when a person who lived a normal Christian life was baptized; only an emergency situation caused the baptism and the death to be noted together. But in the cases recorded the child received baptism only because of the imminent approach of death, and these children at least had not been baptized immediately or shortly after birth. The implication would seem to be that baptism was not routinely administered in infancy, and only the prospect of death caused it to be performed when it was.
The circumstance of emergency baptism may provide the clue for the actual origin of infant baptism.21 Having rejected the doctrine of original sin as the cause of the practice, we are obligated to seek another explanation. Here may be the real contribution of the inscriptions to the study of infant baptism, for they show us popular Christian thinking. The children referred to in the inscriptions were baptized shortly before their death. As we have indicated, this must have been the occasion for the baptism. Since these inscriptions are at burial sites, the fact of baptism must have been significant as a preparation for the afterlife. The Appronianus inscription (V.22) explicitly says that the grandmother wanted the child to be baptized before his death. Tertullian himself perhaps allows the propriety of such emergency baptisms (V.12), but his phrase is ambiguous. The request for baptism was natural enough in itself, and once made would be hard to refuse. The request was reinforced by the influence of John 3:5, “Unless one be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” the importance of which in the second century was noted in Chapter III. Once that statement was detached from the total theological framework of baptism, it would be a strong proof-text for the necessity for every individual to receive baptism. The Old Testament analogy of circumcision would have contributed its part.22 The strong emphasis on the necessity of baptism and “outside the church there is no salvation” confirmed the tendency. Once the practice began, it was natural to extend the precaution before there was illness. So infant baptism spread. On the other hand, the thought of baptism on the point of death could be extended in the other direction to the end of life, as was done in the fourth century.
The matter of the age of baptism appears to have been left to parental or individual choice in the early centuries. The first ecclesiastical command to baptize infants is contained in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions 6.15:
Do you also baptize your infants, and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of God. For he says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.”23
In the fifth century infant baptism became a general practice. The number of large baptisteries that were built in the fifth and sixth centuries, if not simply the continuation of a traditional architecture that was now outmoded, indicates that immersion of adults was still common.
Aland, Kurt. Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.
__________. Die Stellung der Kinder in den frühen christlichen Gemeinden-und ihre Taufe. Munich: Kaiser, 1967.
Ferguson, Everett. “Inscriptions and the Origin of Infant Baptism.” Journal of Theological Studies. New Series, Vol. 30 (1979), pp. 37-46. Repr. in Everett Ferguson, ed. Conversion, Catechumenate, and Baptism in the Early Church. Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. XI. New York: Garland, 1993. Pp. 391-400.
Jeremias, Joachim. Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.
__________. The Origins of Infant Baptism. “Studies in Historical Theology,” 1. Naperville, Illinois: Allenson, 1963.
Wright, David F. “The Origins of Infant Baptism-Child Believers’ Baptism?” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 40 (1987), pp. 1-23.
1 The Apology of Aristides exists complete only in a Syriac translation and in a late Greek adaptation of the original. The passage quoted here and the one on p. 58 are found in a papyrus fragment preserving the original Greek of 15.6–16.1; see H.J.M. Milne, “A New Fragment of the Apology of Aristides,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 25 (1924), pp. 73-77.
2 Instructor 1.5-6, devoted to the theme that Christians are called children, provides the setting for this summary statement.
4 Quoted from Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome (Reissued with Corrections; London: S.P.C.K., 1968). The section on baptism is present in all the eastern versions of the document, and although the Latin is truncated at this point, the agreement of the witnesses in the other line of transmission seems to guarantee the authenticity of the quoted passage.
5 Quoted from H. P. V. Nunn, Christian Inscriptions (Eton: Savile Press, 1952), p. 36, and used by permission of The Provost and Fellows of Eton College.
6 Edited by E. Diehl (second edition; Berlin, 1961). Henceforth abbreviated ILCV.
7 Fragment VIII of the apostolic father Papias says, “They used to call those who practiced godly guilelessness ‘children.’” See also Minucius Felix 2.1; Origen, Commentary on Matthew 13.16. For Adam in infant innocence before his sin: Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 12; 14; Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.25. The theme is studied against its philosophical background in Hans Herter, “Das Unschuldige Kind,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 4 (1961), pp. 146-162.
8 In addition to the passages noted in Chapter III at note 12 about the use of John 3:5, see on baptism as a new birth Barnabas 16.8; Justin, Apology I, 61; 66; Dialogue 138.2; Tatian, Oration 5; Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.16.
9 Gunter Ristow, The Baptism of Christ, “Library of Eastern Church Art” (Rechlinghausen: Aurel Bongers, 1967), p. 13; L. Hertling and E. Kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1960), p. 236; F. van der Meer and C. Mohrmann, Atlas of the Early Christian World (New York: Nelson, 1958), p. 127. Plates I and II of this book.
10 Miscellanies 22.214.171.124.
11 Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3. The legendary Life of Polycarp does not mention his baptism, but by its account of his purchase while a boy by a Christian woman who reared him, it leaves the implication that he was not baptized as an infant.
12 Apology I, 15.6. See XVI.5 for the context.
13 The noun regenerationis means baptism in Against Heresies 1.21.1 (anagennesis, “rebirth” in the Greek, which is preserved for this passage); 3.17.1; 5.15.3. The verb renascor is used in the passage quoted, but the use of “regeneration” for the Greek “rebirth” in 1.21.1 may mean that there is no significance in the Latin translator using a verb form from a different root in 2.22.4.
15 John Chrysostom in the East defended the baptism of sinless infants on the basis of other benefits conferred–Baptismal Instructions 3.6.
16 On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants 1.23, 28, 39; 3.2, 7.
17 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, p. 88; David F. Wright, “At What Ages Were People Baptized in the Early Centuries?” Studia Patristica, Vol. XXX (1997), pp. 389-394.
18 Basil, Homily 13, “Exhortation to Holy Baptism”; Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40; Gregory Nyssa, Against Those Who Defer Baptism. Studied in my “Exhortations to Baptism in the Cappadocians,” Studia Patristica, Vol. XXXIII (1997), pp. 121-129.
19 W. M. Calder, ed., Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua, Vol. I (Manchester University Press, 1928), Introduction; Michael McHugh, “Inscriptions,” in Everett Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, second edition (New York: Garland, 1997), Vol. 1, pp. 574-576.
20 See the collection by F. Cabrol and H. Leclercq, Monumenta ecclesiae liturgica, Vol. I (Paris, 1900–1902), p. clii and pp. 19-68, 154-176.
21 Everett Ferguson, “Inscriptions and the Origin of Infant Baptism,” Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. 30 (1979), pp. 37-46.
22 It should be noted, however, that the earliest Christian sources identify the gift of the Holy Spirit, not baptism, as the new covenant’s counterpart to circumcision–Everett Ferguson, “Spiritual Circumcision in Early Christianity,” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 41 (1988), pp. 485-497.
23 It should be noted that the first six books of the Apostolic Constitutions is a rewriting of the third-century Didascalia, which does not contain this command.