Either we should baptize only believers or we should baptize believers and their babies. One of these must be right; the other must be wrong. One is old and apostolic; the other is newer. For the purpose of this paper, assume this much: The very early church practiced one teaching; the other developed later in the life of the church.
In the baptism debate, history seems unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, history is not clearly on either side of the debate. There were at least a few ancient Christians who seem to have practiced each baptismal system (or something near to it). And many old sources are vague enough that both sides claim them. Together, these mean that everyone comes away believing that they are in agreement with the vast majority of historical figures.
Second, very few early church figures take either of the Protestant views of baptism. Like modern credo-baptists, Justin Martyr taught believer’s baptism and claimed that such teaching was apostolic. But he also conflated baptism with regeneration. Baptists can point to him as the earliest clear witness for believer’s baptism, but have trouble with his view of regeneration. Early church history offers even less comfort to Protestant infant baptizers. I know of no one before the Reformation who held to infant baptism and avoided errors such as baptismal regeneration, infant communion and infant damnation.
But before we decide that little can be gained from history to solve the debate, let’s consider some additional arguments based on historical data.
Consideration #1: conflation of baptism and regeneration
Early Christians conflated baptism with regeneration, regardless of whether they baptized infants. That is, they taught that the washing of the body in baptism and the washing of the soul in regeneration were so closely linked that they were one. “Regeneration” was often used in reference to baptism. What are the consequences when each group conflates baptism and regeneration?
We cannot see inside men and identify who is truly regenerate. Paul taught the church at Rome that Abraham’s faith preceded his circumcision (Rom.4:9-11). The Apostle John gave us many tests (1 John) for knowing who is regenerate—no one of which is a guarantee. Jonathan Edwards, who devoted much energy to this question, said,
[I]t was never God’s design to give us any rules, by which we may certainly know, who of our fellow professors are his, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats; but that, on the contrary, it was God’s design to reserve this to himself, as his prerogative.1
Because we must use external signs to identify the regenerate, some conflation between external signs and regeneration is inevitable. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated when he offered his son. Faith is shown by and “completed by” such works (James 2:18-26, especially v. 24). These are works of faith in the sense of works that come from faith. Because we can’t see faith, but only works of faith, the two can be so co-mingled that they become inseparable.
If baptism is not conflated with regeneration, something else will be (e.g., praying for salvation). In the examination of an individual, we ourselves may be the most interested observer. Baptism, as a rite of initiation, becomes a way to clearly assert one’s own faith, both to others and to ourselves. Considered in this way, it is permissible to conflate regeneration with baptism if the baptism comes with understanding, belief, and assent. Scripture seems to require this sort of conflation (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21).
This can be done without damage to sola fidelis only because regeneration is conflated with a work of faith. In the case of infant baptism, the choice was not the child’s, so there is no evidence that the baptism is a work of faith. One might object that it is a work of faith on the part of the church or on the part of the parents. But that doesn’t help because the argument of James 2 is that a person is “justified” by works and not by faith alone—his own faith is completed by his own works.
When the infant-baptizer conflates baptism with regeneration, he does damage to that understanding and possibly to the gospel. When the credo-baptist conflates them, he does very little and possibly no damage (though he must occasionally clarify the matter). Therefore, the paedo-baptist who conflates baptism and regeneration is more likely to be distant from the true gospel and apostolic tradition than is the credo-baptist with similar conflation. If this argument is valid, the credo-baptist has a more reliable ancient historical tradition than the paedo-baptist.
Consideration #2: argument from widespread changes
The macroscopic trend during the first 300 years of the church was a shift from credo-baptism to paedo-baptism. The very early church offers no direct evidence of infant baptism. Justin Martyr argued clearly that baptism is different from physical birth in that it is done with knowledge and assent as opposed to the ignorance of infancy. He further claimed that that tradition and line of reasoning originated with the Apostles. Aristides used one’s faith as the basis for inclusion in the Christian community rather than one’s status as a child of believers, which is a basis for credo-baptism. Hippolytus and the Didache are consistent with credo-baptism, but do not explicitly defend it. By the 3rd century, the picture is mixed. After Augustine, paedo-baptism predominates.
The general trend of the first four centuries is from believer’s baptism toward infant baptism. If believer’s baptism was the original teaching, this fits with the trend. If infant baptism was the original teaching, then credo-baptism would have to have sprung up, become somewhat popular, and then waned. That explanation is possible, but it calls on us to explain how and why credo-baptism would have sprung up in a paedo-baptist very early church.
Consideration #3: argument from individual changes
The macroscopic move from credo-baptism to paedo-baptism can be seen microscopically in the lives of men such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Though they were not been baptized as infants, they went on to teach infant baptism. I know of no one in this period who was raised as a paedo-baptist and shifted to credo-baptism. History shows many instances of men who made the change from adult baptism toward infant baptism. Yet, there is no evidence of anyone making the change in the opposite direction. This gives empirical evidence that the adoption of infant baptism in the setting of adult baptism is more common than the adoption of believer’s baptism in the setting of infant baptism. This in turn suggests that believer’s baptism is older.
Consideration #4: theoretical theological argument
A church must act regularly upon its doctrine of baptism. This is especially true in a growing and spreading church like the early church. So while any new teaching on baptism was being developed, the old teaching was already in constant use. The question is, is it easier to suppose a theoretical way for infant baptism to develop in the setting of believer’s baptism, or vice versa?
First, let’s consider the how paedo-baptism might have developed in the setting of credo-baptism. We begin by assuming that the church began baptizing only believers and conflated baptism with regeneration. Assuming that Baptism did begin as the answer of a conscience made good, it is understandable that it stood as proof to others and to one’s own self of regeneration. Soon, it was regeneration. From there it became a rite that provided total cleansing.
Parents I know in the Baptist tradition often wish to see their children baptized as soon as a profession of faith is made. In the case of a young child it can be difficult to discern between a true profession and parroting of words and phrases. I have been skeptical a few times that a profession was genuine. Many Baptist teens have a testimony that includes a prayer and baptism at a young age that they barely remember (if at all) and a later time of personal commitment to Christ.
With child mortality high, it is easy to see how parents would want very sick children washed of their sin with the slightest “I love Jesus” as the basis. Parents were anxious to know their children were God’s. Third century tombstones demonstrated this. If a very young child was sick and received baptism, another parent might question whether the baptism was really appropriate since the profession was doubtful. A kind-hearted clergyman would reply that since the child is sick, it is better to give him and his parents the comfort of baptism. What harm is there? With younger and younger children of questionable faith being baptized, the pressure to baptize children of younger age would naturally grow as well. Over the course of a couple of generations, it is easy to see how this could result in a progression toward baptism of infants.
Considering the opposite scenario is more difficult. How might believer’s baptism have developed in the setting of infant baptism? I was raised in a paedo-baptist Lutheran church and do not remember circumstances internal to the church that would tend to encourage people to forgo baptizing infants in favor of baptizing believers.
Note that this argument has the weaknesses of ignorance and lack of imagination. I may simply not be aware of the thoughts and circumstances that would allow the doctrine of believer’s baptism to develop. Perhaps I have not been imaginative enough or had enough experience in the paedo-baptist tradition to perceive how believer’s baptism could have developed. I invite paedo-baptists to consider this and reply. What circumstances and attitudes suggest to you that believer’s baptism is likely to have developed in the setting of infant baptism?
Nevertheless, if we assume that infant baptism was the original teaching handed down and practiced by apostles, the development of credo-baptism seems very unlikely. If a body of believers was accustomed to seeing their infants baptized, had been taught that the baptismal water cleansed their very souls, and was experiencing even moderate infant mortality, what intrepid credo-baptist could convince the parents of a little child (especially a dying child) to do nothing?
I conclude that it is likely that infant baptism could develop in the setting of credo-baptism. And I cannot imagine how believers-only-baptism could develop in the setting of infant baptism. Therefore, if we are right to assume that the very early church was unified in its practice and teaching on this matter, then a very early church that baptized only believers makes the most sense. And a very early church that baptized infants seems inconsistent with history, though I am open to hearing the thoughts of others, of course.
This paper was based on the assumption that there was one teaching that was old, apostolic, and right and that there was one teaching that was new and not apostolic. But what if that assumption is incorrect? Could it be that the very early church did not have a unified teaching and practice?
1 A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections In Three Parts, Jonathan Edwards, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004 reprinting, p. 120.