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.