Turretin Answers Objections To Infant Baptism (5)

XI. (7) Because the fathers acknowledged the necessity of infant baptism and approved its propriety by their practice. Justin Martyr mentions it (“Quaestiones et Responsiones ad Orthodoxos,” Q. 56 in Opera quae feruntur omnia [ed. J.C.T. de Otto, 1881], v. 3, Pt. 2, p. 81); cf. Origen (Commentariorum in Epistolam … ad Romanos 5.8 [PG 14.1037–42]), Cyprian (Letter 58, “To Fidus” [ANF 5:353–54]), Jerome (Against the Pelagians 3.18 [NPNF2, 6:482]), Cyril of Alexandria (Glaphyrorum in Leviticum [PG 69.558–62]). Augustine, often, where he relates that the Pelagians had not dared to deny the baptism of infants because they saw too clearly that this would place them in opposition to the whole church (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 10.23 [ACW 42:127]; On Original Sin 2.44 [40] [NPNF1, 5:253–54]; On Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism 1.35 [25*] [NPNF1, 5:30]). The same thing was confirmed also by many decrees of Synods: of Carthage, in the year 418* (Hefele, 2:458); of Mileve, in the year 402* (cf. Canon 5, Hefele, 2:429); of Gerunda in the year 517* (cf. Canon 5, Hefele, 4:105) and of others which Pamelius in his notes to Cyprian notices (“Epistola LXIV,” Opera [1682], pp. 158–60).

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 3 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 19.20.11 (p. 418).

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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12 comments

  1. Scott,
    Credos would reply that by the 4th century the Church was already “corrupted” on baptism and other doctrines thus dismissing the Fathers’ testimony on this matter. HB response? Thanks for this series of Turretin quotes on baptism.

    • Hi Jack,

      There is solid evidence of the existence of paedobaptism (infant baptism) in the early 3rd century. Tertullian discussed it c. 206. Origen mentions it in the early 3rd century. Cyprian taught it c. 250 AD so it was well established before the 4th century. What we see in the 4th century is a consolidation, not a revolution, of the earlier consensus. Certainly there were corruptions introduced (e.g., in worship) in the 4th century but it’s also the time of the Council of Nicea, the Cappadocians, and the Council of Constantinople.

      The question is, did paedobaptism suddenly appear in the early 3rd century? That seems highly unlikely. There is some evidence (per Jeremias) from the 2nd century but that evidence is disputed. Still, Aland cannot explain whence paedobaptism appeared.

      In the 1st quarter of the 2nd century there was a huge controversy over when Easter should be observed (Quartodeciman) controversy. It threatened to split the church. If the date of the observance of Easter was of such importance, how much greater would have been the controversy over the introduction of infant baptism? Where is the controversial literature from the 2nd and 3rd centuries? It does not exist.

    • The lack of any historical record of a dispute over infant baptism in the early centuries of the Church is indeed telling, especially given how Credos frame it as “clear” false teaching and practice. Thanks again!

    • It might also be helpful to point out the simplest and arguably the most “primitive” of baptismal practice is observable in the Didache. While Baptists prefer to interpret en hudos as a locative, there is no reason why it may not be instrumental (and good reasons to think that it is).

      The reason for diverting to the question of “mode”–that is, to the practice of baptism–is that, relatively speaking, the Baptist insistence on full-body immersion is an inherently more complex ritual than simply standing (cf. Act.9:18) for the mild application of water; which practice is no less simple if holding an infant subject. However, certain EO-habits notwithstanding, infants are not generally considered suitable candidates for a mandatory-immersion rite. A simple symbolic washing, on the other hand, is applicable to adults and infants identically (one baptism).

      Now, we know there was a counter-Gnostic impulse present with the church in the 2nd century and later; as well as the ever-present human propensity to elaboration. Both these inclinations received a boost from that “consolidation” period RSC speaks of, when the church attains an ascendancy. That is to say, conditions obtained in the church after the 4th century that were conducive to increasing complexity in the church’s rites, as well as multiplication of rites; along with standardization of said practice. Such action put Christian rites “on par” with the putative attractions of the mystery cults; and befit an institution no longer confined to the small stage.

      Most often we encounter discussion of the elaboration of the Communion rite. Eventually, the mass or eucharist (whether western or eastern rite) was transformed into a quasi-magical spectacle, as much to be seen as participated. However, one can also interpret the several elaborations upon baptism in parallel fashion. Catechumens (numbers of which increased dramatically for a time after Christianity was identified with the Emperor) judged fit for baptism went through an elaborate purification, culminating in baptism, in a special facility, in the nude (!), then robed in special uniform and paraded before the assembly for first communion.

      (See H.O. Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the 16th Century; his discussion of the patristic background, while he concludes contrary to this argument, shows plainly the trajectory of elaboration and complexity).

      It is not unreasonable to interpret the installation of large baptisteries in various basilicas (which Warfield pointed out long ago were not typically above calf/knee-depth) as part of the elaboration, complexification, and “enhancement” of Baptism, paralleling Communion’s similar treatment. If, instead of copious pouring (suitable to the facilities we know of) full body immersion was occasionally or regularly practiced, such effort is clearly more involved and “rigorous” than anything previous and simpler. It would also require separate times and conditions for the naked men and women (and female deacons to assist!).

      In nearly every way imaginable, immersion is an enhancement on a simpler rite, driving a wedge between a practice fit for young and old alike and accompanied with grave and public decorum, appropriate for a worship service; and a practice that is more like an ordeal. Today’s Baptists have removed many of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of certain late patristic rituals. They can celebrate Baptism in a worship service, and maintain some dignity (and modesty!).

      But, it’s time once again to correct not only the a priori contention that infant-baptism must be a late-invention, itself an “elaboration” on more primitive and pristine practice. But we must also challenge the notion that standard credo-exclusive baptism of today, with its ordinarily mandatory dunking (don’t forget the shock and spluttering), is somehow less “ritualistic” than Reformed practice. It is “ordeal,” and “attention-getting,”–as if to say, “Look at this sign I’m holding; look at me, holding this sign; wait, I’ll add some neon lights if that will help.”

    • What if the lack of historical record of a dispute is because few, if any, practiced it? Perhaps there was no need to dispute something that few, if any, were doing.

      • Larry,

        If the universal practice was convert baptism, to the exclusion of infant baptism, the introduction of infant baptism would have created a significant controversy. Further, when Cyprian wrote (c. 250) is was the universal practice of the church. Should we think that paedobaptism became the universal practice of the church in 50 years time? That seems hard to believe. Finally, such a theory does not explain from where it comes. Practices do not simply drop out of the sky. The better explanation is that it was the earliest practice of the church.

  2. Scripture, not History, should shape our practice. Circumcision was to follow upon birth, as baptism upon the new birth.

    • Allan,

      Your comment reflects a widely held sentiment. It’s not entirely false but it’s misleading.

      Sola Scriptura means that the Scriptures are the final, unique authority for Christian faith and Christian life. Nevertheless, we always read the Scriptures in a historical context. So, when we appeal to church history as a precedent, it is never definitive but it is informative. It is possible that the entire church since the earliest 3rd century has been wrong about infant baptism and arguments to that effect have been made but I am persuaded that the historic Christian reading of Scripture is more faithful to Scripture.

  3. OK, some history. What does Tertullian’s treatise show us? Obviously infant baptism was well known. Do we know he in the minority, or was he considered orthodox?

    ‘And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary— if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?” More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to “ask” for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given “to him that asks.” – Tertullian

    • Allan,

      It is not entirely certain why he argued thus except that it perhaps it reveals his somewhat over-realized eschatology, rigorism (his desire for a perfectly pure visible church), and perfectionist tendencies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Tertullian but he had his blind spots. He quoted approvingly (a few) Montanist prophecies and virtually every patrologist today regards him as Montanist even though the actual evidence of such is scanty.

      In short, Tertullian was wrong to counsel the delay of baptism but his words do testify to the existence of infant baptism prior to the early 3rd century.

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