Sunday, March 12, 2006

The History Of Infant Baptism

Paedo-baptism has been losing ground, and credo-baptism has been gaining ground, in recent scholarship. We see this change reflected in a recent book published by the patristic scholar David Wright. He's written a large amount of material about infant baptism over the years, and last year he published a book titled What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? (England: Paternoster Press, 2005).

Though Wright is a paedo-baptist, his book is largely critical of the historical practice of infant baptism. He thinks that the practice has often been abused, he thinks that credo-baptist scholars make many good points that should be acknowledged, and he thinks that his fellow paedo-baptists need to make some changes (some of which are already underway). Wright acknowledges that infant baptism has done some good, such as in promoting societal unity. And he's critical of Baptists on some points, such as what he considers to be too low a view of the efficacy of baptism. However, he acknowledges that the historical evidence suggests that infant baptism was a post-apostolic development. He acknowledges that a wide variety of views existed on this subject in patristic times. (Contrast this acknowledgment by Wright and other scholars with the claims made by some critics of credo-baptism, regarding an alleged universal or almost universal acceptance of infant baptism.) Wright is a paedo-baptist, but he acknowledges many facts that I as a credo-baptist consider important.

Before I quote from Wright's book, I want to mention that the foreword to the book is written by another scholar, Anthony Lane. The view that Lane advocates is that more than one view of infant baptism co-existed in early church history. He writes about:

"the situation in the early centuries where the two forms of baptism existed side by side, both because of the large influx of converts and because by no means all Christians brought their babies to baptism. The ‘dual practice’ of allowing Christians the choice of whether or not to have their children baptized, and if so at what age, may strike many today as muddled and unprincipled – but the clear fact is that such a variety of practice existed in the third and fourth centuries and that no one raised any principled objection against it. Indeed, it can be argued from this fact that it is most likely that such acceptance of variety goes back to apostolic times." (pp. vii-viii)

For reasons I explained earlier, I think that infant baptism was rare or nonexistent prior to the first explicit mention of it in Tertullian. I doubt that infants were baptized at all in apostolic times. However, Lane's view is at least much more plausible than the common claims of universal infant baptism made by many Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, etc.

Early in the book, David Wright discusses one of the reasons why the credo-baptist position is becoming more widely accepted:

"Away from the erstwhile citadels of Christendom in Europe, Christianity is expanding rapidly in Africa, much of Asia and Latin America. This new Christianity of the South and the East is heavily dominated by models of Christian life, old and new, which generally baptize only converts. Pentecostalism is perhaps the predominant paradigm, expressed in many highly diverse forms, of the thriving Christianity of the South. This seismic shift in the distribution of world Christianity is one of the contexts promoting a reconsideration of baptismal history today." (p. 9)

Before I quote more from Wright, I should clarify something. Wright refers to a time when infant baptism was normalized in the fifth century or later, often referring to it as a "reign" of infant baptism. However, Wright isn't denying that some people objected to the practice even during that timeframe when infant baptism reigned:

"Infant baptism became regnant, and the millennium or so up to the Reformation witnessed only popular, small-scale, uncoordinated and short-lived protests in favour of baptism for believers only." (p. 3)

After discussing the historical abuse of Anabaptists, Wright comments:

"The contemporary church still waits for appropriate acknowledgment by the Vatican and the worldwide Anglican and Reformed communions (the Lutherans of Germany have in good measure led the way and the Swiss Reformed churches have followed more recently) of their forebears’ scandalous mistreatment of the first significant modern advocates of long-lost dimensions of New Testament baptism." (p. 4)

Here are some of the significant portions of what Wright goes on to say:

"One legacy of the baptismal breech of the sixteenth century which has militated against a comprehensive history of baptism has been the stubborn hauteur displayed towards Baptists and believers' baptism by paedobaptist churches and theologians. A friend recalls a world-famous Scottish Reformed theologian telling a seminar in the 1970s that Baptist teaching was 'a bit of a theological slum'….A credible history of baptism, at least so far as Western Christianity is concerned, can be told only if the overwhelming domination of the tradition by infant baptism is subjected to searching scrutiny….Peter Leithart has recently asserted that 'The church was rescued from Baptist theology and practice by Augustine of Hippo.' If 'Baptist' here implies rejection of infant baptism, this wonderfully bold statement is an exaggeration but within pardonable limits….To Leithart, '[t]he remarkable fact about baptism in the early church is that infant baptism emerged…as the dominant practice of the church'. This is not the way the story is usually told! It is indeed seriously misleading to view the age of the Fathers simply as an era of infant baptism. In fact, of known named individuals in those centuries who were both of Christian parentage and baptized at known dates, the great majority were baptized on profession of faith. The obscuring of a truer picture derives ultimately from sixteenth-century apologetic, both Catholic and Protestant, against the Anabaptists….As Leithart helpfully summarizes, 'the earliest baptismal liturgies…were constructed on something like Baptist assumptions, even when children were included'….Leithart fails to draw the obvious conclusion from this evidence, that infant baptism can never have been the norm in this early period….The timescale of infant baptism’s long reign extends from the early medieval period, from about the sixth century, that is to say, after Augustine of Hippo, who died in 430. It was he who provided the theology that led to infant baptism becoming general practice for the first time in the history of the church, perhaps in the later fifth century, more likely in the 500s or even later….A plausible case can be made for a normal practice of baptizing the newborn having developed by the regularizing of clinical paedobaptism [baptism of dying infants]." (pp. 4-6, 8, n. 7 on p. 8, 12, 17)

Throughout the book, Wright gives many examples of paedo-baptists over the centuries contradicting themselves, contradicting each other, and giving a variety of justifications for baptizing infants. One of the significant points Wright makes is that some of the procedures followed for baptizing infants treated those infants as if they were believers. It seems that credo-baptist practices were taken over by paedo-baptists, resulting in absurdities like asking infants to make a confession prior to baptism, then having an adult speak that confession in the voice of the child. Wright comments:

"It was as though paedobaptism had the strength of a cuckoo to eject the original occupants of the nest and thus effect a takeover of baptism, but lacked the independent vitality to fledge its own appropriate liturgical feathers." (p. 8)

Regarding the ecumenical creeds, Wright notes:

"The only ecumenical creed to mention baptism is the Nicene (none mentions the eucharist) in the phrase 'one baptism for the remission of sins'. I have argued elsewhere that this cannot have originally embraced babies, because in the circles from which this creed emerged, to be approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381 (if we accept the testimony of the Fathers at the Council of Chalcedon seventy years later, as most scholars do), it was believed that newborn babies had no sins." (p. 93)

In conclusion:

"We have tracked, largely in this lecture by attending to the texts of Western baptismal development, a truly massive change in the history of Christ’s church. From being a company recruited by intentional response to the gospel imperative to discipleship and baptism, it became a body enrolled from birth. It was arguably one of the greatest sea changes in the story of Christianity. It led, as we have seen, to the formation of Christendom, comprising a Christian empire, Christian nations or peoples. Christianity became a matter of heredity, not decision. The famous and telling words of Tertullian, fiunt, non nascuntur, Christiani, 'people are made, not born, Christians', were turned upside down." (p. 74)


  1. This chapter by Wright may also be of interest "The Apostolic Fathers and infant baptism: any advance on the obscurity of the New Testament?" in Trajectories through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. Edited by Andrew Gregory and Christopher M. Tuckett (Oxford University Press, 2006; ISBN#: 0199267839).

  2. When considering the early church, even Augustine was baptized at age 33

  3. Ahh, the miracle of the ever shifting sands of modern scholarship, this time in the form of Wright who has a better handle on scripture and church history than the rest of the historical church combined. Not a lot (read "none") presented here, just Wright-worship.

  4. Hi,

    I’m Ralph Bass; I have a site that promotes paedo-baptism: as well as a site that covers the history of the word baptidzo: My purpose in writing is to ask for a web link from your site to mine. In doing this, we can unite in promoting the Kingdom in this very important fashion.

    Thank you,

    Ralph Bass

  5. Jason,

    Another book that deals with the emerging evidence for credo-baptist practice in the early church is Everett Ferguson's "Baptism in the Early Church." You might be interested in picking it up, if you haven't already.

    As for Augustine being baptized at 33, it must be remembered that he himself was, as you said in the article, a major advocate of paedobaptism. Also, Augustine mentioned the fact of his delayed baptism in his Confessions, Book 2, where he said, "I beseech Thee, my God, I would fain know, if so Thou willest, for what purpose my baptism was then deferred?" He didn't seem to view that as a normal experience, though perhaps that was just because of his later theological views on baptism.

    Pax Christi,