Thursday, February 22, 2024

Credobaptism Before The Reformation

I discussed infant baptism at length in some posts here in 2006. I don't think I've addressed the subject much since then. I want to revisit it.

In my 2006 posts, I argued that credobaptism seems to have been the only or dominant view of baptism during the earliest generations of church history. See my posts here and here for overviews, and you can search the archives for posts from around the same time addressing various sources (e.g., this post on Justin Martyr). I won't be repeating every point I made in those posts, though I'll reiterate some of what I said.

I'll begin with an overview of the earlier sources. I'll start with the New Testament, then move on to the earliest extrabiblical sources. After that, I'll address the later pre-Reformation centuries.

In the New Testament, we repeatedly see references to John the Baptist, Jesus (through his disciples), and early Christian leaders baptizing a variety of individuals (men, women, and children), but without any reference to an infant being brought for baptism. Many and diverse details are provided in the passages (e.g., "going out…being baptized by him…as they confessed their sins" in Matthew 3:5-6, "making and baptizing more disciples" in John 4:1, "those who had received his word were baptized" in Acts 2:41, the reference to "men and women alike" in Acts 8:12, "I did baptize also the household of Stephanas…they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints" in 1 Corinthians 1:16 and 16:15), but there's not any reference to the baptism of an infant. And it's not just that infant baptism isn't brought up. The authors repeatedly choose terminology that's most naturally interpreted as excluding infants, including in contexts in which using such language could easily have been avoided. For a discussion of the appeal to household baptisms, which don't actually support infant baptism when considered in isolation or as a whole, see chapter 6 in Peter Goeman's The Baptism Debate (Raleigh, North Carolina: Sojourner Press, 2023). That book also discusses the many discontinuities between circumcision and baptism, including ones that make baptism more restrictive than circumcision, along with other problems with paedobaptist argumentation. Throughout the New Testament, subjects like Jesus' blessing of children, the ongoing practice of and discussions about circumcision (e.g., Acts 21:21), and the status of Christians' children (1 Corinthians 7:14) are discussed without any mention of infant baptism.

Let's think about Acts 2 as an illustration. There are some qualifiers in verses 38-42 that are most naturally taken as excluding the baptism of any or all infants in Christian homes (repentance, those God calls to himself, receiving Peter's word, devoting oneself to the apostles' teaching, etc.). To simplify things further, let's focus on "those who had received his word" in verse 41. The most straightforward reading is that infants are being excluded. But there's a reasonable possibility that Luke has a qualifier in mind that he hasn't spelled out. Maybe the group being referred to consists mostly, but not entirely, of those who had received Peter's word. People often speak that way. See verse 45 in the same chapter, for example. It's highly unlikely that every member of the group in question was selling property. In a family context, only one member of the family would need to sell the relevant property, and he wouldn't need help from the other members of his family in the process. We don't normally think of, say, a five-year-old child selling property, yet there surely were some young children within the group under consideration. We interpret verse 45 as referring to a common activity within the group, not an activity that every member of the group participated in. We could read verse 41 in the same manner. However, the qualifier involved in verse 45 is obvious from common knowledge about human life. The same can't be said of the qualifier we're considering in verse 41. We have reason to think Luke's readers would have taken verse 45 in the qualified way I've mentioned. We would need a justification for reading verse 41 that way, and I'm not aware of one. If the advocate of paedobaptism wants to appeal to a covenantal issue or some other overriding factor to justify interpreting verse 41 differently than we'd normally interpret such language, he can do so. But he does have that burden of proof, and I haven't been persuaded by any of the efforts to meet that burden that I've seen so far. (The same reasoning applies, of course, if the paedobaptist wants to appeal to some other qualified reading of verse 41, such as arguing that God supernaturally led some infants to a reception of Peter's word in the context of baptism. We don't normally think of or speak of infants being involved in activities like receiving somebody's word, so the paedobaptist would have to justify his interpretation on that issue.)

It's sometimes suggested that if there was a change from circumcising infants to not baptizing them, we should see more of a controversy over that change than we see in Acts 2 and elsewhere. But the new covenant involved many changes, including ones more significant than the one under consideration here. It's unlikely that having one or more initiatory rites for infants would be anywhere near the top of the list of concerns among Peter's hearers. And Peter is calling people to repentance and the acceptance of a new belief system, so a significant degree of change goes with the territory. That new belief system involves some provision for infants, such as their being holy in some sense without baptism (1 Corinthians 7:14) and, I've argued (see here), universal infant salvation without baptism. Most likely, the holiness of the child in 1 Corinthians 7:14 doesn't come from baptism, just as the holiness of the unbelieving spouse doesn't. And the children addressed by Paul there include ones in the womb and outside the womb prior to baptism. He does, after all, refer to children in general, not baptized children. It's not as though infant baptism would be the only potential means of making some type of provision for infants. And I'm not aware of any evidence that there was some sort of initiatory rite for infants throughout history leading up to the introduction of circumcision with Abraham. It's not as though a lack of such a rite would be unprecedented. About half of the infants (females) didn't have one even during the era of circumcision. Given mitigating factors like those, I don't think we have reason to expect mention of a controversy surrounding the lack of a rite for infants in passages like Acts 2. As Goeman demonstrates in his book cited above, there are many discontinuities between circumcision and baptism even under a paedobaptist scenario, but we don't think a lack of discussion surrounding those differences in Acts 2 is much of a problem. Furthermore, Luke's comments in verses 40 and 42 about further, unrecorded comments from Peter and ongoing apostolic teaching open the door to the addressing of any relevant controversies in one or both of those contexts.

When we get to the earliest extrabiblical sources, we once again see baptism described with credobaptist parameters, as I discussed in my 2006 posts. (I don't recall addressing Josephus in those posts, however. To provide a brief overview, Josephus discusses the baptism of John the Baptist and presents it in a credobaptist manner. If somebody wants to object that John's baptism should be distinguished from baptism as we practice it today, then I agree that there's a difference, but any claim that there's a relevant difference would have to be argued rather than just asserted. And John's baptism gives us precedent for credobaptism either way. Whether it's a precedent with a closer or more distant relation to our baptism has some significance, but doesn't change the fact that it provides some degree of precedent. Notice, too, that if the paedobaptist wants to similarly dismiss the earliest form of baptism practiced under Jesus, mentioned in John 3-4, as something different than our baptism today, then the same principles outlined above apply. Furthermore, we'd then have to take the cumulative effect of those two earlier types of baptism into account as well.) The best explanation for the widespread references to baptism in credobaptist terms is that credobaptism was the only or dominant view early on. It's true that Tertullian is the earliest source to explicitly oppose infant baptism, but the implicit evidence of the pre-Tertullian sources is opposed to infant baptism as well.

It's a less natural interpretation of the text and context to conclude that such sources were only addressing a subcategory of baptism, namely the baptism of converts or non-infants. Why would they only address that subcategory, and why would they use such broad language, as if they're addressing baptism in general, when doing so? It's unlikely that such a large number and variety of sources would address baptism without mentioning infant baptism and without mentioning an exception to the credobaptist parameters they set down if they believed in infant baptism. And it's unlikely that they were expecting their audiences to assume the relevant qualifiers the documents don't mention. They include other qualifiers (e.g., the Didache's discussion of types of water that can be used), they're sometimes writing at significant length or in contexts that allowed them to go into a relevant amount of depth if they wanted to, and they're sometimes addressing non-Christian audiences, for example, so the idea that all of these sources were expecting their audiences to assume the relevant qualifiers is a less likely interpretation of the evidence. For instance, while writing to a pagan audience, Justin Martyr includes a lengthy discussion of the sacraments, church services, and related issues in sections 61-67 of his First Apology, and he addresses baptism in a credobaptist manner.

Having said all of that, I want to add and reiterate some points about infant baptism in the later pre-Reformation centuries. Most of my comments in the past have been about the earlier sources, but there's also a lot that can be cited in favor of credobaptism in the sources of later generations.

At the outset, I want to clarify something that might otherwise cause confusion. Historical sources range across the spectrum in their reliability. And there's sometimes a degree of hagiography in what one source says about another. An account could be partly or mostly accurate, yet misrepresent some of the details involved. If a sixth-century individual writes an account about the baptism of a fifth-century individual, the account might be hagiographical. But it's still a sixth-century source. The sixth-century individual doesn't have to be right about everything he claims in order to represent a view of baptism that was circulating in the sixth century and however much earlier. When I cite sources below about baptismal issues, such as when a person was baptized or other details in the context surrounding the baptism, I'm not suggesting that I accept the historicity of every part of the account. These sources don't have to be right about everything they say in order for them to make the point I'm focused on.

There's occasionally discussion of individuals who were born into Christian families, but weren't baptized as infants. It's often suggested that the parents were negligent or, more specifically, that baptism was delayed with the intention of having it cover a larger percentage of the individual's sins when administered. Think, for example, of what we often hear about Constantine delaying his baptism until close to the time of his death in order to have the baptism cover more of his sins. It's true that some parents were negligent and that some baptisms took place after infancy in an attempt to have the baptism cover more of the sins of the person baptized. But there's no reason to think that all of the post-infancy baptisms among individuals born into Christian homes occurred after infancy for non-credobaptist reasons. In fact, it's probable that some of those baptisms happened after infancy partly or entirely with credobaptist motives.

We know of individuals baptized after infancy whose parents seem to have been significantly mature Christians at the time of the birth of the unbaptized infant in question (e.g., Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine). And other steps were taken to devote children to God when infant baptism was absent. David Wright documented many examples of child dedications in the ancient world that took place independently of infant baptism and sometimes without a baptism occurring until after infancy. For example:

"In the case of Euthymius (377-473) in Melitene in Lesser Armenia, whose life was written by Cyril of Scythopolis (modern Bethshan; b. c.525), it was to God in his church rather than to the ascetic vocation that his godly parents presented him at birth as they had promised. For after years of barrenness, Dionysia had conceived following sustained prayer and a vision in which God promised to grant her a 'child of encouragement' (euthumia), indicating both his name and his future ministry. But it was not until Euthymius' third year that bishop Otreius baptised him and made him a lector. He would become an influential pro-Chalcedonian monastic leader in Palestine." (Infant Baptism In Historical Perspective [Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster, 2007], approximate Kindle location 4070)

We should ask how likely it is that some of these post-infancy baptisms happened, in part or in whole, for credobaptist reasons. Typically, we don't have much or any evidence about the motives of the parents who didn't practice infant baptism. But we know that some of the reasoning Christians applied to baptism was of a credobaptist nature, such as Justin Martyr's discussion of how important it is that the person baptized has chosen to be baptized. As I've discussed before, even after infant baptism began to be practiced by some Christians, we find Gregory Nazianzen allowing for it in exceptional circumstances, but recommending waiting until an older age as the norm. He sets the age for baptism at three, as we see with Euthymius and Otreius above. Gregory mentions some credobaptist reasons for waiting until age three, namely that the child will have some understanding of what's going on and will be at an age of accountability. Given how many Christians held such views of baptism, it's unlikely that none of the parents who didn't practice infant baptism had those reasons for not practicing it. The popularity of some credobaptist views of baptism makes it likely that such credobaptist motives were part, though not all, of what motivated Christian parents to not baptize their infants.

It's worth noting, too, that the phenomenon of Christian parents not having their infants baptized went on for a long time, more than just one or two generations. For example, in a sermon in the sixth century, well over a century beyond the time when infants like John Chrysostom and Augustine went unbaptized by their Christian parents, we find Caesarius of Arles criticizing parents for "postponing" the baptism of their children (Sermon 84:6, in Mary Magdaleine Mueller, trans., St. Caesarius: Sermons, Volume II [81-186] [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1964], 19). He doesn't seem to merely be addressing a hypothetical. He refers to how "some women bring their little babies so reluctantly because they neglect to come to the vigils with them". That's not a credobaptist reason for not having an infant baptized, but that's just one category Caesarius brings up in what seems to be a larger concern that he has. He begins the section by addressing "brethren" and urging them to get their children baptized, so the example about women quoted above seems to be a subcategory of what he has in mind, not the totality of it. And he's addressing people listening to his sermon rather than just talking about individuals not present, so he thinks it's something that needs to be addressed with parents who are religiously active. It's clear that the phenomenon of Christian parents not having their infants baptized went on for multiple centuries in multiple locations and included some parents who seem to have been significantly mature in their faith. I'm not aware of anything in Caesarius that would suggest it's probable that any of the individuals he's addressing had credobaptist motives (rather than not baptizing their infants because of apathy, a desire that the baptism cover a larger percentage of their child's sins later in life, etc.). However, there's a significant possibility that credobaptist motives were involved. We know that earlier sources had such motives, and there isn't much reason to conclude that nobody held those views later.

Even well into the medieval era, after infant baptism had become widely accepted, there were sources who acknowledged that it wasn't practiced earlier in a particular area or in general. Everett Ferguson provides a few examples from the second half of the first millennium. He quotes Robert Bishop of the Arabians:

"Severus [of Antioch, born in the fifth century] earnestly desired to receive baptism there and also to become, he, too, a signed one among the lambs of the house of God. For this Mother [faith] had still not been acquired by him, because in the country of his people, they used to baptize none except [grown] men." (Baptism In The Early Church [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009], 632)

Macarius, bishop of Memphis in Egypt:

"In the first generation one did not baptize infants, but those who attained a proper age were called catechumens. It is to these that one preached baptism and taught the Christian religion for three years, and they were baptized." (ibid.)

Walahfrid Strabo:

"Next it must be noted that at first the traditional grace of baptism was given only to those who had already matured in both body and mind, they would be able to know and understand what effort must follow after baptism, what must be confessed and believed; in short, what must be observed by those reborn in Christ." (633)

Ferguson also cites an article by Eoin de Bhaldraithe about evidence for the lateness of the development of infant baptism in Ireland. I've read the article, and I think the evidence cited is of mixed quality, but I don't know much about the history of baptism in that region of the world.

Even into the second millennium, we see some pre-Reformation Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites opposing infant baptism. I've briefly commented on some of the evidence pertaining to the Waldensians and Lollards elsewhere, here and here.


  1. First of all, I appreciate your work on this. I get into discussions on baptism occasionally at the Reformed Pub and the belief among the Presbyterians there seems to be that there was no credobaptism until the English Reformation. Their argument is that paedobaptism was the reigning view prior to then, that only paedobaptism was practiced in the Early Church, that Rome practiced it during the Middle Ages, and that all of the Reformers practiced it. As you demonstrate here, this isn’t the case. Certainly, they practiced credobaptism with new believers who hadn’t been baptized as infants, but there were certainly cases even among the Apostolic Fathers and other Patristics that credobaptism was not only practiced, but that there seems to be a general principle for doing so.

    I get some of my observations from a now hard-to-find book called commonly enough Baptism in the Early Church by Hennie Stander and J. P. Louw published in 2004 by Carey Press, Reformation Today Trust (ISBN 0952791315, 9780952791317). Stander has a book by himself of the same name and the same length printed the same year by Evangelical Press. I haven’t seen that book for comparison. Stander and Louw are paedobaptists, but their book makes a good case for credobaptism in the Early Church, though paedobaptism was certainly practiced.

    What’s interesting in all of this is that all of these groups supposedly unified on the practice of paedobaptism have very different reasons for practicing it. What’s important to them seems to be THAT it’s practiced rather than WHY it’s practiced. Credobaptism is practiced, even by paedobaptists, for the same reason: someone professes to have come to faith. Now the English Reformation came to the conclusion that this should be the sole reason for baptism on the basis of a reformation of covenant theology that was shared even by some of the paedobaptistic Puritans like John Owen. However, even without that development, it’s sufficient to recognize that we’re supposed to baptize someone who comes to faith.

    Many are also not aware of the debates over baptism in the early church and how odd they seem compared to the debates today. One such debate was not so odd, but there were some heretical Christian sects in the Early Church that practiced baptism. This debate was over whether to re-baptize when members eventually came to an orthodox church. More odd was the debate between baptismal regeneration and the permanence of regeneration, namely whether to baptize babies so they are regenerate considering that they will always be regenerate or to wait until a believer was on their deathbed to baptize them so they didn’t have a chance to sin and lose their salvation. The Early Church should be considered in fundamental doctrinal development guided by apostolic writing, but it’s interesting the machinations people were going through.

    It seems to me, and I wish I had more direct evidence of this, that paedobaptism among the Reformers was largely a function of the sacralism of the Middle Ages. It also informed their theology on civil magistrates. They baptized babies because they were born in the place where Christianity is the only legal religion and is enforced by the Civil Government. This, I believe, is why credobaptists were persecuted so strongly prior to and during the Reformation. However, when the sacral relationship broke apart, the credobaptists simply updated the theology to babies born to members of the church rather than to citizens of the state. If you have any resources on this, I’d love to either reinforce or revise my thinking with something more tangible.

    By the way, congratulations on Triablogue’s upcoming 20th anniversary.

    1. Jim,


      The book by Stander and Louw has a lot of valuable information about the earliest centuries of church history.

      I don't know much about the effects of church/state relationships on paedobaptism during the Reformation era. It's a significant factor, but one I haven't studied much. State influence does lessen the evidential force of the popularity of infant baptism in later centuries.

  2. Roger,

    Some of those issues are ones I haven't thought about in a lot of depth. As soon as you combine infant baptism and one or more other issues (infant baptism and church practice, infant baptism and marriage, etc.), you're no longer addressing infant baptism alone, and the situation gets more complicated. There are all kinds of hypotheticals that can be brought up, and the more complicated the situation gets, the more easily one or more of the issues involved can be overlooked or misjudged.

    You mentioned historical merit. I'm not aware of any evidence suggesting dual practice (a church trying to accommodate both credobaptists and paedobaptists in how they baptize) among any Christians of the earliest generations. I don't know when the dual-practice view originated, I don't know much about the history of the movement, and I don't know much about how they handle some of the issues involved in having a dual-practice church.

    There can be unity between credobaptists and paedobaptists in the large majority of contexts. They can attend the same church, work together in organizations outside the local church, pray together, work together in evangelism, etc. But my view at this point is that the local church (and some other organizations) and the leaders there should teach and practice credobaptism alone. The evidence justifies taking the credobaptist position, and the differences between it and the paedobaptist view are significant. Whether the paedobaptist thinks things like faith, repentance, and newness of life may become present in the baptizand's life after infancy, thinks they will become present after infancy, or thinks they're already present in a form for which we have as little evidence as we have with infants, any of those positions is significantly different than baptizing people for whom we have much more evidence that those things are already present. I don't think the disunity that exists when paedobaptists can't have their infants baptized in a credobaptist church, etc. carries as much weight. The paedobaptist can still have a lot of unity with the credobaptist outside the local church and inside the local church in some contexts (Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc.). More could be said about these and other issues involved, but I'll stop here.