Infant Baptism in the History of the Church

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. The early church was not credo-baptist.

Note: I wrote this post in response to a question I received from a fellow pastor. I like to address practical issues that pastors and Christians are facing on the ground. If you would like me to address a particular question, drop me a note!

Ancient practice in the Church sets an important precedent for present day practice. This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are bound to only do things as they have always been done, but the principles of catholicity and unity move us not to break from historic church practice on a particular item unless there is a strong biblical rationale.  Where there is not a strong biblical rationale, or, strong cases could be made on either side, the precedent of church tradition should play a factor in making the decision.

Such is the case with infant baptism. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists both present biblical arguments that either side is fully convinced of. Thus, church tradition is often brought into the discussion to lend weight to the support of one side or another.

So what does church tradition have to say on the issue of infant baptism? What was the historic practice of the church from the earliest days?

Before we go further, I would like to make a few distinctions and give a few definitions. First of all, credo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that only those who credibly and consciously profess belief in Christ are valid subjects for baptism. This can also be referred to as believers-only baptism. Second, paedo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that infants of at least one believing parent are valid subjects of baptism. The paedo-baptist conviction therefore does not exclude baptism of adults who have converted to Christianity and have never been baptized. I shall also use the term infant baptism as synonymous with paedo-baptism.

Also, I would like to make two caveats. First, I am fully aware of the biblical evidence and rationale for the paedo-baptist position and can readily give it. This point of this article is to give historical evidence in the face of two positions that both claim to have biblical rationale. I am also fully aware that credo-baptists have fully developed biblical rationale for their position (though I disagree with them). The point of this post is to address the historical precedent as a sort of “tie-breaker” to the biblical stalemate. Second caveat: I fully embrace my Baptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers in Christ. This is a intramural discussion, and one I offer not with rancor, yet with firmness of conviction.


 

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. At the onset of the Reformation, none of the magisterial reformers abandoned the practice of infant baptism, but began to vigorously defend it with fresh biblical rationale based on Covenant Theology. The Reformers went so far in their defense of paedo-baptism that none of them even advocated the re-baptism of those who had received baptism in the pre-Reformation church. To this day, churches that are the ecclesial and theological heirs of the Protestant Reformers have continued that practice of infant baptism. These would be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed of various kinds, and Anglicans (which I would argue fall in the Reformed camp, but someone may protest that I left them out). In these churches there is a continuous and consistent theology and practice of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church.

Thus infant baptism was the universal practice of the Christian Church until some Reformation leaders began to question many of the standard practices of Christianity and the Christian life. These Radical Reformers (what scholars call the anabaptists) opposed padeo-baptism, and they advocated for the re-baptism (thus the name anabaptist, one who re-baptizes) of those who had been baptized before the Reformation. But the 16th century anabaptists can not be properly described as holding to credo-baptism as I have defined it. These radical reformers made a very high hurdle to cross before baptism, not simply allowing those who made a credible profession of faith come to the font, but only allowing those who had proven themselves over a long period of time as committed Christian disciples. The radical reformation reserved baptism for the few, a subset of Christian believers. This is not the modern Baptist position. Furthermore, there are many aspects of 16th century anabaptist movements that modern baptists do not adhere to, specificaly, pacifism, communitarianism, and mysticism. The proper heirs of the 16th c. Radical Reformation are to be found in the Menonite and Amish churches, not in modern Baptist churches. (NOTE: see James R. Payton, Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, pp. 160-172).

Baptists, rather, are the spiritual heirs of the English Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. As such, the 17th century theology of credo-baptism was quite new, even by the timeline of the Reformation. There is no real historical precedent for the view before the 17th century and no place where it was practiced outside of England. In contrast, the paeo-baptist position was practiced and defended biblically and theologically from the onset of the Reformation and in every place where the Reformation spread up to the present day.

To the time before the Reformation: no one disputes that the practice of the ancient and medieval Church was universally paedo-baptist after the time of Augustine. This is because Augustine’s treatment of both original sin and the doctrine of grace made a theological path for the practice of infant baptism to become universal. From the 5th century onward, there is no question as to the universal practice of the Church in baptizing the infants of believing parents.

However, in the earliest centuries of the church (before Augustine) the evidence for infant baptism is scant and many credo-baptists will argue based on this that believers-only baptism was the first practice of the church until Constantine got a hold of things. The Constantine thing is always a red herring. Almost nothing he is credited (or blamed) for in the Church is accurate. As I said above, Augustine was the one who closed the book on infant baptism. Constantine himself never weighed in on it and still evidenced the flawed early church baptismal practice in his own life (which I will talk about below).

Yet the argument for credo-baptism in the early church is not sustained by the historical evidence. It is true that the writings we have access to today give overwhelming evidence to adult baptism and to many folks delaying their baptisms well into their adult life. However, this evidence for delaying baptism does not support the credo-baptist position for the following reasons.

1) The reason why adult baptism is the focus in the early church is because everyone is converting to Christianity (it’s the same as in the New Testament). Many of the stories told in the very early church are of converts, and so many were converting from paganism to Christianity that the stories of infant baptism get lost. The story of the early church is one of conversion. Thus the baptism of professing believers is the story told. This is not therefore evidence against infant baptism or for believers-only baptism. It is evidence that people were converting to Christianity in droves and being baptized.

2) There is no writing (that I know of) that is polemical against infant baptism. If the Early Church was credo-baptist by conviction, you would expect much polemic against infant baptism. It simply doesn’t exist.

3) There is evidence for infant baptism in the early church. It isn’t the only practice, but the evidence suggests that infant baptism was a normal and expected practice. One specific example is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (late 2nd to early 3rd c.). In this text a baptismal rite is described that includes infants. There are other examples of this in the early church. As I said above, the adult baptism of converts was the most attested practice, but there is still ample evidence that infant baptism was occurring and no one, I repeat, no one was arguing against it.

4) The reason why many Christians in the early church delayed their baptism was due to a faulty baptismal theology and a faulty soteriology. Before Augustine gave the definitive treatments, many believed that since baptism washed away all previous sin and that if you sinned after baptism there was no possibility for forgiveness, you should delay baptism as long as possible to get your sinnin’ in. This is why Constantine was baptized late in life, for example, not because he was not a committed Christian, but because he wanted to make sure to be saved (there was also a political reason for him delaying baptism). After Augustine developed his doctrine of grace and gave the definitive (and final, at least till the Reformation) argument for infant baptism, this is no longer an issue.

Here’s the payoff, Baptists point to the early church for evidence of believers-only baptism, but are they willing also to own the errant theology that was the reason for it? I think not. There were people who delayed baptism in the early church but it was not for modern credo-baptist conviction that only believers should be baptized. It was for other (faulty) theological reasons. Baptism was not delayed until a credible profession. It was delayed  until the person felt they could go on for the rest of their lives without sin (or to enter the Christian ministry). This is not the modern Baptist position, nor should it be. The early church was not credo-baptist.

St. Ambrose of Milan – Savior of the Nations, Come

This is one of my favorite Advent hymns. It has some of the most powerful lines in the history of Christian hymnody, written by one of the first to really emphasize congregational participation in worship, Ambrose of Milan.

This hymn is also deeply theological. In Ambrose’s words we find the various theological controversies of the day reflected. Namely, the heresy of Arianism, which said that Jesus Christ was not fully divine, is combated in verse 4. Nestorianism, which argued that Jesus Christ was not fully human, is combated in verse 3. But beyond that, the hymn promotes the wonder and awe that we should all have when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. Verse three into the first phrase of verse 4 gives me goosebumps. Every time.

Give a listen to Christ Our King’s arrangement of this hymn from the 4th century. I hope it instills in you the wonder that it did for its first singers in Milan.

1 Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

2 Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh —
Woman’s offspring pure and fresh.

3. Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

4. Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

 


Savior of the Nations, Come
St. Ambrose of Milan, 4th c.
Translation of verses 1 and 2 by William M. Reynolds, 19th c.
Translation of verse 3 by the Lutheran Service Book, 2006
Translation of verse 4 by F. Samuel Janzow, 20th c.

Tune: Johann Walter, Wittenburg, 16th c.
Arranged by: Timothy R. LeCroy 2016

Performed by Christ Our King Musicians
Vocals: Tim LeCroy and Liv Cordray
Violin: Erica Kallis
Piano: Liv Cordray
Guitar: Tim LeCroy
Bass: Tim LeCroy

 


If you want to be added to my Advent devotional emails, just leave a comment below!

 

2018 Great O Antiphons

I am a fixer. I have to fix things. Sometimes I find it hard just to simply listen to people’s struggles without needing to fix them. But the reality is that I am not the one to fix them or myself or anything. I need someone greater than myself to fix things.

When John the Baptist came Jesus called him the greatest to be born of a woman. He was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, greater than Moses even! If anyone could fix things it was John the Baptist.

And yet John the Baptist was not a fixer. He said, “I am not the Christ.” He said that his mission was simply to point to Christ and bear witness about him and say, “One is coming whose sandals I am not even worthy to untie.” John the Baptist, who was much greater than me or you or anyone alive today, could not fix things. He knew that only Jesus could.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Behold Jesus! He comes to set you free!

I invite you to enter into the last 8 days of Advent with me as we recite the Great O Antiphons together and meditate on a few scriptures, quotations and songs. If you would like to be added to this email list this season, just leave a comment and I will add you to the list.

Let us enter into the Great O Antiphons again. Let us pray for our King to come and deliver us.

2017 Advent Prayer Guide

Each year I produce an Advent Prayer guide for the use of the folks at Christ Our King. We also put it up on our website in electronic form so that people can download and use. There are also audio clips of all the tunes for singing the psalms, canticles, and hymns in the guide. My hope is that this will deepen your prayer life and enable you to seek the Lord during this season.

Come, Lord Jesus!

2017 Christ Our King Advent Prayer Guide – CLICK HERE

5 Common Misconceptions of Reformation Day

For many people the date October 31 is significant not only for being the Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve, Halloween) but as the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. These theses were a list of arguments against the abuses of the papacy as it was in the early 16th century, largely centering on the sale of indulgences by the Roman Church. The 95 theses were quickly copied and distributed with the emerging printing press, and soon became a manifesto of sorts for the reform of the church in Europe.

The 500th anniversary of this event is quickly approaching.

Because of this many people are talking about the Reformation and interest in Reformation events and theologies is swelling. Along with this interest and discussion comes several of the myths or misconceptions about the Reformation that have been perpetuated over the years.

As a historical theologian I am not only interested in these misconceptions for accuracy’s sake (though I do care about accuracy) but also because I believe that holding to faulty conceptions about the Reformation does harm to the actual intentions and aims of the Protestant Reformers.

For this reason, I am going to briefly address 5 of these misconceptions and discuss why correcting them is important.

1. Nailing the 95 Theses to the Church Door Was an Act of Protest

to read the rest of the article click here.

Sunday Music – The Old Rugged Cross

At Christ Our King, the church where I pastor, we’ve been recording our worship services, including the music. Here’s a recent rendition we did of the old hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross.” I hope it is a blessing to you!

Vocals: Tim LeCroy and Olivia Cordray
Guitar: Tim LeCroy
Mandolin: Olivia Cordray
Violin: Erica Kallis
Bass: Tim LeCroy

Why Pray the Hours? – Reflections on Reformation

The church throughout her history has kept regular, set times of prayer each day. Should modern Christians reacquire this ancient practice?

Note: this begins a series on my blog called Reflections on Reformation which will be running this year in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation.

Early on in the history of the church, Christians understood that the 1st century Jewish practice of meeting for prayer at set times of the day was a good and biblical practice to continue. We find references to this in several places in Scripture. In Acts 3 we find Peter and John attending a set prayer at the temple at 3PM. Acts 10 seems to reference Peter continuing this practice in his devotional life as he was praying at the ninth hour (3pm). Later in the story he prays at the sixth hour (noon).  Pentecost occurred at the third hour of the day (9 am). In Jesus’s parable in Luke 18 we find two men going up to the temple to pray. While he does not tell us the exact hour, it was a corporate prayer service they were attending. Simeon and Anna prayed in the Temple continually, it says in Luke 2. We tend to assume this is individual devotional prayer, but it would make more sense if this referred to them participating in the set prayers of the temple service. In Acts 22 we find Paul praying at the temple. In Luke 1:10 we find a multitude praying in the temple courts at the “hour of incense.” In Daniel 9 we find Daniel praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. He did this even though the temple was destroyed and there was currently no sacrificial ministry occurring.

In the Psalms there are multiple references to prayer and times of day. Psalm 88:13 says, “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” Psalm 5:3 says, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” Psalm 59:16, “But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.” Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.” Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” Psalm 119:148, “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.” Psalm 134:1-2, “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” This is not to mention numerous places in the Psalms where specific times of day are referred to with relation to receiving mercy, hearing God’s word, groaning, crying out, meditating on his greatness, etc.

Perhaps this is also what is meant by the several references in the scriptures to praying night and day and praying without ceasing. This would make sense in the context of gathered set times of prayer, which we know were happening at least in the temple and also in an extension of those temple services in private prayers (see Peter and Daniel above).

Are we to take these numerous references to prayer at specific times of day as a descriptive coincidence? Or do the Scriptures intend to prescribe a practice for God’s people? Indeed, the early Christians saw these references as scriptural warrant to offer prayers at set times each day. Based on specific times mentioned in scripture (just before dawn, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, sunset, evening, midnight) and based on Psalm 119:164 which says, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” the early Christians established set times of prayer at these times.

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Not everyone prayed seven times a day in the early church, although for some this was the ideal (see Hippolytus of Rome’s Apostolic Constitutions). Yet the churches called those to prayer who were pastors and workers, those with vocations within the church and those who were able and willing to do so. Eventually communities sprang up who were devoted to prayer, such were the early monasteries. In the Rule of Benedict he lays out the liturgies for the set times of prayer along with the Psalms that were to be sung at them. In the ancient practice of the Benedictine Rule, the monastery was directed to sing through the entire Psalter every week.

This may be what Paul had in mind as well when he describes that the widows who are enrolled in the church when he writes in 1 Timothy 5:5, “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day.” Interestingly, Calvin remarked on this in his Institutes in book 4:8:18-19 where he discusses the enrollment of widows as deaconesses to “discharge the public ministry of the church toward the poor and to strive with all zeal, continancy, and diligence in the task of love.” It is interesting because he does not address the apostolic command that these widows continue in supplications night and day. His reaction against late medieval monasticism was too strong to allow him to consider that possibility. In this he was not unlike many of the Protestant Reformers who saw the services of the hours as attempts to “appease God with songs or unintelligible mumbling.”

Despite Calvin’s protestation, the church has continued these daily prayers, the hours or divine offices throughout her history. At the time of the Protestant Reformation one of the main questions that arose was whether and which practices of the ancient and medieval church should be continued. While some protestant traditions continued the daily office in some form (mainly Anglicans and some Lutherans), most of the Protestants jettisoned the daily office in favor of the teaching ministry of the church. Calvin himself taught the scriptures daily, and for that reason we have an expansive collection of his biblical teaching. We might ask though, while teaching the scriptures is obviously a very good thing, should the corporate prayer ministry of the church have been abandoned? If the answer is no, what are ways that we can reincorporate this ministry into the life our churches today?

Evangelical churches have tended to relegate prayer to the private life of the individual believer. The emphasis on alone time with the Lord is in keeping with Christ’s teaching on prayer, and this was the main influence for Evangelical piety. Yet in the 20th century, Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have reacquired this ancient emphasis on prayer, while not taking up the ancient forms. Many charismatic prayer ministries seek to be faithful to God’s word by opening up prayer rooms where there is a sign-up and a schedule to ensure that prayers are being offered around the clock.

While this re-emphasis on prayer is to be commended, it largely focuses on the efficacy of prayer (a true and good notion), but not necessarily on the formative aspects of prayer for the Christian believer. In the early church it was both the efficacious and the formative aspects of prayer that shaped the church’s practices. Could we glean from this formative aspect of prayer today?

There has been much work recently in this area. James K. A. Smith’s work on Christian formation has drawn deeply from prayer’s formative aspect and the goodness of this for Christian formation. Additionally Greg Thompson in his public teaching ministry has made this a focus. Both Thompson and Smith have drawn from the life of the ancient church in its rich liturgies and from the Rule of Benedict which prescribes prayer as a way of life for disciples of Christ. It should be noted that both Smith and Thompson are active in the Reformed context, Thompson being a pastor in the PCA and having given a series of foundational lectures at Covenant Theological Seminary on this topic.

What then are we to make of this? I’m not suggesting that every Christian should pray the seven offices every day. Yet it would be helpful if Evangelicals leaned into this rich tradition to form our congregations in some way. It is also very helpful, if not necessary, that those who are in vocational ministry participate in the daily office as a way to rest, recharge, and fulfill our callings to intercede as ministers of word and prayer.

I’ll offer several practical suggestions below.

  1. Offer avenues for daily prayer to congregants. This could be in the form of a prayer guide that the church produces, or suggestions of various smartphone apps which fulfill the same purpose. For example, each year for Advent and Lent my church offers a daily prayer guide to all our congregants to enter into daily prayer. Mind you, this is not seven times a day, but a suggestion and resource for engaging in once-daily prayer as individuals and families. Another option is to offer a page in the weekly service bulletin with all the lectionary readings for that week and encourage congregants to use that week’s service as a prayer guide throughout the week.
  2. Offer a mid week prayer service. Churches with access to facilities during the week could offer a mid-week vespers or matins (or both!) so that congregants who wish could attend to pray together and be shaped by these rich patterns of prayer.
  3. Pray daily as a church staff. If you have multiple staff who office at the same location, gather for morning prayer as you start each day. Make it a priority and block the time out on your schedule.
  4. Seminary Communities. Seminaries are uniquely positioned to enter into the richness of communal prayer. If chapels are more lightly attended than years past, perhaps a shift away from the didactic focus of a chapel sermon to the communal and formative act of prayer will reinvigorate seminary communities. Begin by exposing students and faculty to things like chanting psalms and saying the hours. Do the office for one or two of the chapel services a semester. Pick one day per semester to cancel classes and pray the hours (9am, 12, 3, and at sunset), encouraging the students and faculty to work in between the prayer services. Eventually begin offering morning prayer on a daily basis for those that desire it. Then sit back and see what the Lord does with it.
  5. Individual pastors. I encourage all pastors to say the office at least once a day. I say the morning office every morning (even Sunday before church!) except for my day off. This has been very beneficial for me in a number of ways, which I will detail in a future post.

Won’t this require too much work and take up too much time? The great thing about the office is that once you learn how it works, you don’t need to spend time preparing and practicing like we have done for many chapel services and Sunday services these days. Find someone who can lead it well. Find someone who can chant psalms. Then just show up and do it. Take 15-20 minutes out of your day (minimum) to spend time in community before the Lord. I promise that you will begin to see tangible results in the lives of those who participate.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done.” There is no written evidence that he ever said that, though perhaps it was a oral tradition that was passed down through the ages due to its poignancy. Whether he said it or not, we must remember that Luther was a medieval monk who prayed the hours. That shaped him and formed him in his knowledge of the scriptures and in his love and knowledge of God. Augustine prayed the hours. Chrysostom prayed the hours. Anselm prayed the hours. In fact, all the theological giants of the ancient and medieval church prayed them in some form. Our fathers and mothers were steeped in scripture because of this. We often think that we know the bible well and understand it even better. But are we steeped in scripture to the level that our fathers and mothers were? Who recited the psalter by heart once a week? Who read through the bible at least every three years? Who daily spent hours in prayer before the face of God?

 

Want me to help you learn how to chant the psalms? Contact me.

Apps for the daily office
These apps are available in your app store. Note: these apps come from various theological traditions.

  • Mission St. Clare
  • Divine Hours, Vinyard Ann Arbor
  • Universalis
  • Daily Prayer from the COE
  • Do you know of others? Comment below!