Baptism in History, Part 2

Read Part 1.

The writings of the third and fourth centuries reveal varying teachings on baptism. These include baptismal regeneration, baptism as a replacement for circumcision, and baptism as a step of faith. The church accepts some of these arguments today. Others have been rejected. Conclusions some claim are apostolic but which are based on rejected propositions should be viewed with skepticism.

Tertullian, in On Baptism (early 3rd century), argues against infant baptism: “[T]he delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children.”1 He gives several reasons. One is that the infant is “innocent.” The church under the more theologically precise Augustine soon rejected the “innocence” of infants. But if we read Tertullian generously, as not necessarily commenting on original sin, but as asserting that the status of an infant is “safe,” then the church agrees (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin, Hodge, Shedd, and Warfield [all referenced by Boettner2] and Spurgeon3). Although Augustine later rightly contradicted Tertullian’s words, Tertullian may have stood on a relatively orthodox basis when he argued for credo-baptism.

Second, the child’s sponsors would be “thrust into danger.” This seems to be the danger of having made promises to God and the church about the future faith and piety of the child. The third reason was that baptism should be carried out with the understanding and assent of the candidate and should be requested by the candidate. “The Lord does indeed say, ‘Forbid them not to come unto me.’ Let them ‘come,’ then, while they are growing up…learning…let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ…Let them know how to ‘ask’ for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given ‘to him that asketh.’” His third reason was that baptism calls for understanding, assent, having relationship with [knowing] Christ, and should be requested by the candidate.

Some argue that the existence of Tertullian’s argument also supports infant baptism because it was written to oppose something. Since this is certaintly the case, Tertullian shows us that by the 3rd century the picture was mixed; there were at least some taking each of the major positions on baptism.

Origen, in Commentary on Romans (early 3rd century) says, “Was a newly born child able to sin? And yet it has a sin for which sacrifices are commanded to be offered, and from which it is denied that anyone is pure, even in his life should be one day long…It is on this account as well as that the Church has received from the apostles to give baptism even to little children [parvulis].”4 Origen’s reason for the baptism of infants was the sinfulness of one-day-old infants, which he derives from his teaching that souls were created and fell before the creation of the world. All these souls (except that of Jesus) fell and were exiled in human bodies. Clearly this view of creation is not apostolic. Origen claims that the tradition of baptizing infants is from the apostles. But this claim must meet a measure of doubt because his argument was based on a rejected idea of creation and the fall. Still, this early, prominent, and in many ways very original theologian taught infant baptism.

Cyprian, in his Letter 69 (AD 255), says, “It is in baptism that we…receive the remission of sins.”5 In response to Bishop Fidus, who suggested that baptism should be on the 8th day, Cyprian and the Synod of Carthage (about AD 252) said that the 2nd or 3rd day was better and that waiting would “deny the mercy and grace of God” and “we must do everything we possibly can to prevent the destruction of any soul.”6 It has been suggested7 that this is a limited circumstance of widespread emergency baptism brought on by the plague of AD 252.8 I could not find reference to this theory in a published book or peer reviewed journal. This grasp at an objection notwithstanding, Cyprian taught that infants should be baptized.

Joachim Jeremias proffers several tombstone inscriptions from the 3rd century as evidence of infant baptism.9 One, probably at the beginning of the 3rd century, was made for a one-year-old. It is marked “God’s slave” and with the Kai-Rho symbol. But there is no evidence that this infant was baptized. He may have been presumed to be elect because of his Christian parents. Another is marked “Slave of Christ” and “holy infant.” Jeremias says, “infant,” but the Greek is paidion, “child.” Another, possibly 3rd century, mentions “lavacro” (washed) and “dulcissime nate” (sweet baby). Four dubious inscriptions are cited as well. One mentions the infant Dionysios, who “lies with the holy ones.” “Baptism” isn’t mentioned on the tombstone, however. Pomponia’s tombstone, probably 3rd century, is marked “died in peace” and has a fish symbol. This at least indicates they considered her a Christian. Had she been baptized? Jeremias considers “spirito sancto” on the tombstone of Innocens (a three-year-old) to indicate he was baptized. Was he? Similarly, a one-year-old is marked, “te cum pace.” Does being at peace mean he was baptized? Readers tend to answer these questions in light of their own traditions.

Jeremias groups four 3rd century tombstones together. These are marked as having died very soon after their baptisms (if they were baptized) at ages 21 months, 22 months, eleven months, and twelve years. Out of these, only one has a reliable reference to baptism (“washing”). These tombstones, if they do refer to baptism, provide evidence against the practice of baptizing infants. Apparently these children had not been baptized as infants, but only when their lives were threatened. But there is an opposing answer here to my first theological question (regarding whether infants were considered part of the covenant community). Unless the inscriptions were motivated more by sentiment than theology, they imply that these infants and very young children were considered part of the Christian community, at least in some sense.

Basil was born in Caesarea around AD 330 and baptized in AD 357.10 Basil taught:

Faith and baptism are two kindred and inseparable ways of salvation: faith is perfected through baptism, baptism is established through faith, and both are completed by the same names. For as we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, so are we also baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; first comes the confession, introducing us to salvation, and baptism follows, setting the seal upon our assent.11

He taught faith before baptism. “How then do we achieve the descent into hell? By imitating, through baptism, the burial of Christ. For the bodies of the baptized are, as it were, buried in the water. Baptism then symbolically signifies the putting off of the works of the flesh.”12 Basil spoke of baptism as a symbol. “With regard to emerging in baptism…it is impossible for anyone to be immersed three times, without emerging three times.”13 Basil was immersing and seemed to consider that obvious.

“In or about the year AD 339 Ambrose was born…the son of Christians and was brought up as a Christian, but, in the manner of his time, he had postponed baptism.”14

“Jerome was born in 347…[near] Dalmatia…Jerome’s parents were Christians, who took care that he had been, as a baby, ‘nourished on Catholic milk,’ he was not baptized as a child…but as a young man…In those days, baptism was postponed until maturity…Augustine and Jerome’s friends, Rufinus and Heliodorus, are parallel cases.”15 Again the pattern was to delay baptism until maturity. A woman named Laeta wrote to Jerome to ask for advice in the raising of her infant daughter. He responded:

But perhaps you imagine that, if they are not baptized, the children of Christians are liable for their own sins; and that no guilt attaches to parents who withhold from baptism those who by reason of their tender age can offer no objection to it. The truth is that, as baptism ensures the salvation of the child, this in turn brings advantage to the parents. Whether you would offer your child or not lay within your choice, but now that you have offered her, you neglect her at your peril. I speak generally for in your case you have no discretion, having offered your child even before her conception.16

Of this section, Joachim Jeremias says, “Jerome asserts that it is a grievous sin in Christian parents not to bring their infants for baptism.”17 Jerome says no such thing. He argues that baptizing children is beneficial to parents, but he isn’t specific about age. Further, he refers to Laeta having “offered her child.” Subsequently, she has “no discretion” on the matter of baptism for her child. This implies that he taught a status quo of discretion on the part of parents. Earlier in this letter, we see that several in Laeta’s family were Christians. If Jerome believed he needed to persuade Laeta to baptize her daughter in infancy, he must have perceived that it was not the obvious choice of common practice.

John Chrysostom was born around AD 368. “His family…was Christian….In spite of this he was not baptized in infancy; following the practice widely accepted in those days…it was only as a young man approaching twenty that he [offered] himself for it.”18 J.N.D. Kelly says that delayed baptism was widely accepted in those days.

In such cases, the delay may not have been for the identical reason that credo-baptists delay today. Today’s credo-baptists say that faith should come first. Many in the third and fourth centuries viewed baptism as a one-time total washing that could never be repeated. Thus, backsliders have no hope of cleansing. Some thought it best to wait until one was totally committed to living the Christian life for the rest of one’s life before taking baptism. For instance, John Chrysotom, in an address to catechumens on the day of their baptism, charges them against backsliding because “just as there is no second cross, there is no second remission of sins by regenerative washing.”19 It is unknown what reason John’s parents had for delaying his baptism.

Gregroy Nazianzus also sought baptism himself as a young man.20 His teachings, around AD 380, include Oration 40:

What…about those who are still children [νηπίων] and conscious neither of the loss [sin] nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger threatens. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated. But in respect of others [not in danger] I give my opinion to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the sacrament [mystery]…(brackets Fergusson’s)21

Ferguson goes on to say, “Gregory clearly does not reject, but even encourages baby baptism; yet neither does he recognize it as the normal practice, and he knows questions about it, factors that do not encourage the thought that it was a long-standing routine practice.” Gregory appears to have dealt with believers who were unsure whether to baptize infants. His answer is no, except for emergency baptism they should wait until age three.

In AD 401 the Sixth Council of Carthage decreed, “It seemed good that they [found infants] should be baptized about whom there was an ambiguity whether they had been baptized or no; lest they might through that doubt lose the divine ablution.”22 By the 5th century, the Catholic Church was solidifying its teaching of infant baptism. Augustine had influence on this, which will be discussed in Part 3.


In turning to the third and fourth centuries, teachers began to advocate for each side of the debate. The church was mixed in how it practiced baptism. Emergency infant baptisms were taking place. But these voices for infant baptism were not unanimous; neither do they expect that their view will be accepted without some persuasion on their part.

Some teachers in this period do not seem dogmatic about which practice is right but instead argue that one or the other is better or wiser. Gregory of Nazianzus gave “his opinion,” which was to wait until age 3, but allowed for emergency baptism. They seemed to lack a historical sense of a dogmatic apostolic tradition in this matter and instead relied on their own wisdom.

The church also continued to conflate regeneration with baptism. Baptists should pause before pointing accusing fingers. Among some Baptists similar conflation has occurred in the case of altar calls and praying the sinner’s prayer. “Going forward” or praying a prayer is still thought by many to be salvation. This confusion is demonstrated by the question from a teen at my church, “What happens to someone if he goes forward to be saved and dies on the way down the aisle?”

We should not harshly blame the early church for confusing the sign of regeneration with actual regeneration of the soul. In fact, the early church deserves more leeway because the sign they confused was at least the ordained sign. But we should consider the effect of this confusion. Baptism is a passive experience for the one being baptized. Once there was sufficient confusion that regeneration was wrought by baptism, it was an easy step to minimize the value of choice and awareness on the part of the one being baptized.

Men who were not baptized by their Christian families as babies went on to teach and practice infant baptism. Augustine is in this group, as we will see in Part 3. It is significant that these men demonstrate credo-baptist Christian practices. But perhaps more significantly, these men shifted in their tradition. They were raised credo-baptist and some of them went on to teach paedo-baptism.

Their lack of baptism as infants may not have been because of credo-baptism but because of belief that baptism should be put off until one could be sure he was ready to live for Christ for the rest of his life—a kind of hyper-credo-baptism. They wanted to wait not just for a credible statement of faith, but for a really sure confidence of faith and even a confidence that one would persevere to the end. Similarly, the paedo-baptists of this time were not like today’s paedo-baptists. Instead, they taught baptismal regeneration, which is rejected by today’s protestant paedo-baptists. During the first four centuries, the early church was populated by credo-baptists, “hyper-credo-baptists,” and “hyper-paedo-baptists.”


1 On Baptism, Ch. 18, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol III, Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1892.

2 The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination, Loraine Boettner D.D., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1932, pp. 143ff

3 Infant Salvation, Sermon No. 411, Delivered on Sunday Morning, September 29th, 1861 by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

4 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Origen, in The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 103, Trans. Thomas P. Scheck, The Catholic University of America Press, USA, 2001, p. 367.

5 Early Latin Theology, S. L. Greenslade, The Westminster Press, Louisville, 1956, p. 157.

6 Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 3 - The Letters of Cyprian, Rev. Johannes Quasten, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1986, pp. 110-112.

7 Patristic Evidence, [online]. Available from Accessed 5 July 2010 and Not Swine ‘Flu’ 2009 But Plague 252 [online]. Available from Accessed 5 July 2010.

8 De Mortalitate, Cyprian, in The Writings of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, Vol. 3, Alexander Roberts, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1868.

9 Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, Joachim Jeremias, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1960, pp. 76-78.

10 Basil of Caesarea, Philip Rousseau, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994, p. 25.

11 The Holy Spirit, Ch. XII:28, Basil the Great, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. VIII, Ed. Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1895, p. 18.

12 Ibid, p. 21, The Holy Spirit, Ch. 15:35

13 Ibid, p. 278 Letters 236.5

14 Early Latin Theology, S. L. Greenslade, The Westminster Press, Louisville, 1956, p. 175.

15 Jerome, Stefan Rebenich, Routledge, London 2002, p. 2.

16 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. 6, Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1895, pg. 18 (The Holy Spirit, Ch. XII:28). “To Laeta” CVII:6 p. 198.

17 Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, Joachim Jeremias, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1960, p. 95.

18 Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, J.N.D.Kelly, Cornell University Press, 1995, p. 5.

19 Ibid, p. 89.

20 St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, John Anthony McGuckin, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY. 2001, p. 55.

21 Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, Everett Ferguson, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2009, p. 595.

22 Canon LXXII, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. 14, Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1890, [Online] Available from Accessed 5 July 2010.

Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, youth-worker, and part-time student.

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Charlie's picture

Good job, Dan. I think this article is quite well done. Sometime soon I'll have to give you my thoughts on Origen. I think he is a particularly significant figure.

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