The History Of Infant Baptism

By Luther W. Martin

“Baptism was administered at first only to adults, as men were accustomed to conceive baptism and faith as strictly connected. We have all reason for not deriving infant baptism from apostolic institution, and the recognition of it which followed somewhat later, as an apostolic tradition, serves to confirm this hypothesis. Irenaeus is the first church teacher in whom we find any allusion to infant baptism” (Neander’s History of the Christian Religion and Church, Vol. 1, p. 311). (Irenaeus lived 130-200 A.D.)

“There is no proof or hint in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants or ordered them to be baptized” (The First Age of Christianity and the Church, J.J.I. Dollinger, p. 325).

“As the Apostle said, children are already holy, if their fathers or mothers are Christians; that is, they are already distinguished from the mass of Heathen and Jews by the mere fact, which alone proclaims God’s will of having a Christian parent. They are already destined for sanctification and capable of it; from their earliest age the Christian profession and life of their family has a sanctifying effect on them; they grow up under the religious influence of a father’s or mother’s prayers and example” (Ibid., p. 326). (J.J.I. Dollinger was a German scholar, a faculty member in a Catholic University, who opposed the dogma of papal infallibility, in 1870.)

“The principle rites in the early Church were Baptism and the Lord’s supper. Baptism, it is now generally agreed among scholars, was commonly by immersion. Whether infants were baptized in the Apostolic age, or exactly when the custom arose of administering this rite to them, is a controverted question on which the New Testament writings furnish no direct information” (The Beginnings of Christianity, George P. Fisher, p. 565).

“Irenaeus – who was born about A.D. 130 – implies that infants were baptized in his time. Origen, a child of Christian parents, and born A.D. 155, was baptized in infancy, and regarded infant baptism as an Apostolic institution” (Ibid., pp. 565-566).

“Lord Palmerston was once severely attacked for having said ‘Children are born good.’ But he, in fact, only said what Chrysostom had said before him, and Chrysostom said only what in the Gospels had been already said of the natural state of the unbaptized Galilean children, ‘Of such is the kingdom of Heaven… (Christian Institutions, Arthur P. Stanley, D.D., Dean of Westminster, p. 22).

“In the Apostolic age, and in the three centuries which followed, it is evident that, as a general rule, those who came to baptism came in full age, of their own deliberate choice. We find a few cases of the baptism of children; in the third century we find one case of the baptism of infants. Even amongst Christian households the instances of Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Ephrem of Edessa, Augustine, Ambrose, are decisive proofs that it was not only not obligatory but not usual. All these distinguished personages had Christian parents, and yet were not baptized till they reached maturity. The old liturgical service of Baptism was framed for full-grown converts, and is only by considerable adaptation applied to the case of infants. Gradually the practice of baptizing infants spread, and after the fifth century the whole Christian world, East and West, Catholic and Protestant, Episcopal and Presbyterian (with the single exception of the sect of the Baptists before mentioned), have adopted it. Whereas, in the early ages, Adult Baptism was the rule, and Infant Baptism the exception, in later times Infant Baptism is the rule, and Adult Baptism the exception” (Ibid., pp. 19-20). (Stanley was Dean of Westminster, in the Church of England, a century ago.)

“. . And now what of infants? Before speaking of any conditions relating to their baptism, let us ask this question: is it right to baptize them at all? There is no direct answer to this-question in the Scriptures, but there is no mistaking the directness of the answer supplied from tradition. Origen spoke truly in saying that the church received this custom from the Apostles. Even those who, like Harnack, deny the apostolicity of this custom, are none the less obliged to admit that it was a widespread custom in the time of Tertullian, who was born about the year 160” (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Edited by George D. Smith, p. 794).

“But immediately after Irenaeus, in the last years of the second century, Tertullian appears as a zealous opponent of infant baptism; a proof that the practice had not as yet come to be regarded as an apostolic institution; for otherwise, he would hardly have ventured to express himself so strongly against it. We perceive from his argument against infant baptism, that its advocates already appealed to Matt. 19:14, a passage which it would be natural for everyone to apply in this manner. ‘Our Lord rebuked not the little children, but commanded them to be brought to him that he might bless them.’ Tertullian advises, that in consideration of the great importance of the transaction, and of the preparation necessary to be made for it on the part of the recipients, baptism, as a general thing, should rather he delayed than prematurely applied, and he takes this occasion to declare himself particularly opposed to haste in the baptism of children. In answer to the objection drawn from those words of Christ, he replies: – ‘Let them come, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught to what it is they are coming; let them become Christians, when they are susceptible of the knowledge of Christ. What haste, to procure the forgiveness of sins for the age of innocence?” (Neander’s History of the Christian Religion and Church, Vol. 1, p. 312).

“Infants are to be baptized very soon after birth, but no definite rule as to time is laid down by canon law. Non-Catholic infants in danger of death may be baptized even against their parents’ wishes” (Catholic Dictionary, Attwater, p. 254).

“The Church has always taught that unbaptized children are excluded from Heaven but has defined nothing as to their positive fate” (Ibid., p. 255).

“Unbaptized children are buried without liturgical rites in a special part of the cemetery” (Ibid., p. 255).

“Babies deceased without baptism. On the fate of these little ones, some doctors expressed themselves too rigorously. Others with too great indulgence. St. Augustine (followed by St. Gregory the Great, St. Anselm, Gregory of Rimini, the torturer of infants, Bossuet, Berti) taught that they are damned, although punished with very light suffering” (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Parente, Piolanti and Garofalo, p. 27).

“Marriage is not the cause of the sin which is transmitted in the natural birth, and atoned for in the new birth; but the voluntary transgression of the first man is the cause of original sin” (Augustine 354-430 A.D., Quoted in The Teachings of the Church Fathers, Edited by John R. Willis, p. 276).

“Let no one promise for the case of unbaptized infants, between damnation and the kingdom of heaven, some middle place of rest and happiness, such as he pleases and where he pleases. For this is what the heresy of Pelagius promises them” (Ibid., Quoting Augustine, p. 278).

418 A.D. – The First Decree Concerning “Original Sin”

Two religious teachers, Pelagius and Coelestius, maintained that “man’s nature was not corrupted by the fall of Adam, and that even where Christianity was not known men might render themselves by the power of their own wills proper subjects of divine grace” (History of the Christian Church, by Dr. Charles Hase, professor of Theology in the University of Jena, p. 122).

These two men were anathematized by the Council of Carthage, Canon 2:

“Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers; wombs ought not to be baptized, or says that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin from Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration, whence it follows that in regard to them the form of baptism ‘unto the remission of sins’ is understood as not true, but as false, let him be anathema” (The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Denzinger, p. 45).

“‘If anyone denies that infants newly born from their mother’s wombs are to be baptized,’ even though they be born of baptized parents, Cor says they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which must be expiated by the laver of regeneration’ for the attainment of life everlasting, whence it follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins is understood to be not true, but false: let him be anathema” (Ibid., p. 247).

Conclusions Based Upon the Foregoing Historical Excerpts

1. Baptism was administered only to adults in the New Testament church.

2. Children were held to be innocent and holy in the first age of the church.

3. Infant baptism was neither taught nor exemplified in the New Testament.

4. The first implication of infant baptism was during the life of Irenaeus, who was born about 130 A.D.

5. Origen, born about 155 A.D., asserted that infant baptism was apostolic.

6. A.P. Stanely, Dean of Westminster, an Anglican churchman, concluded that there was a few instances of infant baptism in the 3rd century.

7. A Catholic author, George D. Smith, states that the Scriptures give no direct answer to the question: “Is it right to baptize them (infants) at all?”

8. Notice that the modern Catholic Dictionary (Attwater), asserts that the Church (Roman Catholic) “has always taught” that “unbaptized children are excluded from heaven.”

9. Council of Carthage, 418 A.D. issues a decree on 44original sin”; this was done in anathematizing those teachers who denied “original sin.”

10. Later church councils repeated and strengthened their support of the doctrine of “original sin.”

11. The denominations that directly split from the Roman Catholic Church, nearly all continued the doctrine of “original sin.” This, in turn, produced the practice of infant baptism.

12. Even the Wesleys who started the Methodist Church fostered infant sprinkling and held that infants were born in a state of condemnation; that is, until 1910 A.D., when they modified their position in their Book of Discipline.

Summary and Conclusion

In the early years of the Apostate Church, when they practiced infant baptism, for a time their theologians insisted that it was also necessary for infants to partake of the “Holy Eucharist,” on pain of condemnation.

Also, there were controversies as to the depth or degree of punishment that awaited the unbaptized infant, after death. The subject of “Limbo” has been bandied about by Catholic scholars (?) who suggested that God would not cause “pain” to the unbaptized infant, in the hereafter, but that these infants would be denied the “Beatific Vision”; that is, be denied being in the presence of God.

I am not aware of any equivalent controversies on this subject that plagued the Church of England, Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians . . . like were experienced by the Catholic Church. However, none of the posterity of Catholicism developed the idea of “original sin,” and consequent “infant baptism” themselves, they all imitated their ancestry (ponder Revelation 17,18).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 19, pp. 584-586
October 1, 1987