Baptism in the early Centuries

In as non-confrontational a way as possible, I have sought in recent weeks to show why it is that I think the Bible mandates the baptising of everyone who is involved in the life of the visible church – including children.  These articles are after all exploring the place of children in the life of the Church!


Over the last couple of articles we’ve been thinking about the Bible’s teaching.  But what of the history of the Church since the days of the Apostles?  We saw how important it was that children were taught, with many of the great pastors and theologians of the church over the ages giving time to writing catechisms for children, and teaching the children in their congregation.  Is including children in the sacramental life of the Church something we can see with equal clarity? The fact that something has been done in the history of the Church isn’t necessarily proof that it is in line with the Bible’s teaching.  We’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years.  But if the Bible teaches something, it would be a bit strange if it was never practised, or referred to in the intervening 2,000 years. 


Looking at Christian writing in the first couple of centuries after the Apostles can be a hair-raising experience.  Given that people were getting things so badly wrong even while the Apostles were alive, it should be of no surprise to see that things could go equally badly wrong within a few years of their death.  And the material relating to baptism is no exception!  One example is a piece of writing from the middle of the second century called The Shepherd of Hermas.  Within 100 years of the death of Peter and Paul, some parts of the Church are already teaching that Baptism is what actually saves a person.  Some other writings are more helpful.  The Didache (meaning: teaching) gives us some insight into the fact that (some parts at least) of the Church were pretty flexible about the mode of baptism.  If running water is not available, we are instructed, then it is acceptable to pour ‘other water’ out three times in the Triune Name.  Rather quaintly there is also the note that cold water is to be preferred over warm (though no reason is given, and if cold water is not available, warm is fine!).  These passing references to baptism in these works do seem limited to dealing with the question of adults who are converting to Christ from paganism – the question of the children of believers isn’t being addressed.


The most significant writing from these early years is from the pen of Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage (c.160-225).  His Homily on Baptism is the only work specifically addressing baptism that pre-dates the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  He understands God, through the Holy Spirit, to use the water of baptism as an instrumental means of cleansing a person from sin, and it is thus necessary to a person’s salvation.  It is, for Tertullian, through baptism that we are cleansed from sin and consequently prepared for receiving the Holy Spirit (I did say it could get a bit crazy!).  What is interesting though, is that Tertullian complained that he thought children were being baptised at too young an age.  This complaint arose from his misunderstanding that nature of baptism, and thinking that it actually cleansed from sin.  He believed infants were innocent of sin, and as such were not in immediate need of baptism.  Whatever you might think of his reasons (!), the fact that he is complaining about what he sees as the Church’s practise of baptising children is instructive.  By arguing against it, he lets us know it was being done. 


Origen (c.185-254) by contrast had a strong doctrine of original sin, and argued in favour of infant baptism: ‘there is in the Church a tradition received from the Apostles, in accordance with which baptism is conferred on little children…’.  Cyprian (died 258); Hippolytus of Rome (170-236) and Chrysostom (347-407) all testify with approval to the baptising infants; indeed Hippolytus specifically gives instruction for the baptising of those children who are too young to answer the baptismal questions for themselves.  Justin Martyr (100-165) states that older people in his time had been baptised as infants within the first century.  In addition is the rather more sombre evidence of inscriptions on the tombs of children, which seems to indicate that even those who died in their first year of life were marked as baptised.


The famous Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote about Baptism in his controversy with a group known as the Donatists.  After a season of vicious persecution, many Christians were worried about the validity of their baptism, if the pastors who administered it were among those who had denied the faith under trial or torture.  The Donatists argued that only baptism administered by a faithful pastor counted, and so taught that if the pastor later denied the faith any sacraments he had been involved with were invalidated!  Augustine argued that the validity of a sacrament had more to do with the faithfulness of Christ than any merely human pastor.  He went on to discuss how baptism freed an infant from ‘the serpent’s poisonous bite’. He continues: ‘So in infants who are baptised the sacrament of regeneration is given first, and if they maintain a Christian piety, conversion also in the heart will follow, of which the mysterious sign had gone before in the outward body … man’s [sic] salvation is made complete through the two together’.  Augustine prizes baptism to the point that he isn’t sure someone can be saved if they are not baptised: ‘Nor can there be said in any way to be a turning of the heart to God when the sacrament of God is treated with such contempt’. 


This all needs to be treated with some measure of caution.  There is clearly some level of confusion about what Baptism does and doesn’t achieve in itself, and what is its relation to faith in Christ.  What doesn’t seem to be up for question though is that children and infants were baptised by at least significant sections of the Church in these early years.

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