Augustine: Infant Baptism Is The Apostolic And Universal Practice Of The Church

What the universal Church holds, not as instituted by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond.

Augustine On Baptism, Against the Donatists (4.24.31)

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  1. In his work “De Baptismo”, Tertullian (around 200 A.D.) looked askance at infant baptism. “According to everyone’s condition and disposition, and also his age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if [baptism itself] is not necessary—that the sponsors should be thrust into danger? For they may either fail of their promise by death, or they may be mistaken by a child’s proving of wicked disposition…. They that understand the weight of baptism will rather dread the receiving of it, than the delaying of it. An entire faith is secure of salvation! “ (de baptismo, ch. xviii). Tertullian does not prohibit it, but is wary of the practice for the reasons he cites. I am in the process of becoming a member of Reformed church that holds to the Heidelberg Confession, but as one who came out of Catholicism, I have misgivings about this, particularly since Catholicism believes in baptismal regeneration (which I wholeheartedly reject). The Reformation Study Bible that I have states on page 1514 that “infants can be born again”. For this reason I reject this portion of the Heidelberg catechism that advocates infant baptism. An elder with whom I am studying the catechism together told me they do not believe that infant regeneration exists. Nevertheless, I have these misgivings: it is an easy slide of infant baptism into a mechanical view of receiving grace without the state of the heart of the recipient being involved. Also, like other reformed Baptists, I find the covenantal reasoning behind infant baptisms to be unsatisfactory. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.

    • Alex,

      Your elder is correct. Scripture does not teach either circumcisional regeneration or baptismal regeneration. Augustine did (depending upon what he meant in any given instance by “regeneration,” since it can refer merely to sanctification) but we do not. We baptize infants for the same reason that Abraham circumcised infants: to initiate them into the visible covenant community, to put the sign of the covenant on them, and to set them apart.

      As to slippery slopes, well, on your reasoning you might not be able to pray because Romanists pray and the invoke saints and the BVM as intercessors or as the Mediatrix. Yes, Rome corrupted the sacraments instituted by Christ. That is why we had a Reformation, to get back to God’s Word.

      There are strong reasons to believe in and practice infant baptism. Here are some resources. Please check these out before you make up your mind.

    • Alex,
      Some time ago I was asking the same questions. Then I came across the Heidelcast series, I Will Be a God to You and to Your Children. I had to listen to it over and over before I really, “get it”, but it was time and effort well spent.

      Think about how God made the covenant with Abraham. God put him into a stupor so that he was helpless, and then God alone walked through the pieces, pledging to do all the obedience that the covenant requires, and suffer the death curse for our inability to do what it requires. Then he gave the bloody sign of circumcision to be as mark and pledge to Abraham of how this would be accomplished by the promised One, to Abraham and to his helpless infant children, to show that it is all accomplished by God alone. The mark did not automatically give them what the sign represented. In order for them to receive the benefit of the promise they had to believe like father Abraham. That is only possible through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. It is not tied to the time of the administration of the ceremony. The ceremony is a sign that marks the individual with the mark of outward membership in the church, and offers God’s promise of salvation IF, AND WHEN the recipient is born again through the Holy Spirit. Consider how Colossians 2 calls baptism the circumcision of Christ. When I realized that infant initiation into the covenant has never been abrogated, and that God was so angry with Moses because he neglected to circumcise son, that he wanted to kill him, it made me realise that the sign is so important to God because it represents the covenant of grace, the gospel, and to neglect it is tantamount to spurning God’s gracious promise. That was when I realized that the Reformed view was truly correct.

  2. Like so many, before I did my research I believed infant baptism was only introduced by the Papacy during the middle ages and had no basis of being linked to the NT. Only when I did my research did I see the historical case for believers-only baptism was incredibly weak.

  3. Augustine: “Infant baptism is the universal practice of the church [since the apostles].” Only it wasn’t, as documents the staunch paedobaptist Jeremias (ch. 4).

    • Phil,

      It’s been 20+ years. Refresh my memory.

      It’s interesting that Augustine was unaware of orthodox churches practicing anything other than paedobaptism. There were sects that opposed it.

    • Regarding Dr. Clark’s comment:

      “It’s interesting that Augustine was unaware of orthodox churches practicing anything other than paedobaptism. There were sects that opposed it.”

      From merely reading Augustine’s “Confessions” (his most “popular” work which many people read if they read nothing else by Augustine), I think that it is highly reductionistic to say that no orthodox churches (and only sects) had practices other than paedobaptism.

      First of all, I don’t believe that Augustine ever would have said that his mother was a member of a sect. However, we know that it was a practice that his own baptism was later in life even though he was born into her church. I’m curious in the post-Reformation/modern churches which practice paedobaptism if the parent (and child) would be left as a communicant member if the baptism of the child was rejected?

      Secondly, and also in Confessions, we read of Augustine’s longtime/childhood friend who was not baptized as an infant but whose family would baptize him on his deathbed. He would later recover and this was problematic as he believed his Catholic family had prematurely baptized him.

      I don’t know the full history, but a couple of things bubble up to the top here. First, it’s obvious that paedobaptism was practiced in his time, and for some time prior. However, it does not appear that this was something that was a matter of church discipline/excommunication if the parents wanted to delay the baptism. Even Augustine, from all I’ve read from him so far, never said that the practice of delayed baptism was wrong, unorthodox, or sectarian. It was well in line with his beliefs that baptism cleansed one of original sin and any sins committed up until the point of baptism. In fact, one could say that these were Catholic (orthodox churches) that practiced something other than paedobaptism – they practiced paedobaptism plus/or delayed baptism.

      As I mentioned in my blog post linked in my prior comment, we shouldn’t be happy enough with knowing “that” paedobaptism was practiced in some capacity. We should figure out why the church practiced it at least from the 4th-16th Centuries.

    • Joachim Jeremias’ book was one of the two books that moved me away from the Baptist view and to the Reformed view of Baptism. I don’t understand how Jeremias undermines baptizing infants of members as the apostolic practice. Some people delayed Baptism, but if I’m not mistaken I think that had more to do with fear of sinning after baptism than a conviction that only believers should be baptized.

      • Daniel,

        Yes, thank you for this. The argument against infant baptism on the ground that people either misunderstood it (e.g., came to think that it washed away sins or conferred new life ex opere) and therefore delayed it does not prove that infant baptism was not the practice of the ancient church and that is what is in question.

        The rest of it is just throwing dust in the air to obscure the historical reality that the teaching of the church and the normative practice in the Greek-speaking, Latin-speaking, Syriac-speaking churches was infant baptism.

  4. Dr. Clark, how do you react to the extensive documentation Jeremias gives in his well-known book (ch. 4) which contradicts Augustine’s assertion that infant baptism was universally practices in orthodox churches from apostolic times forward? I would appreciate your thoughts on this, brother.

    • Sorry for the redundancy – my initial post wasn’t showing up on my browser.

      Jeremias documents how various prominent orthodox churchmen, such as Basil, Chrysostom, among several others, were not baptized as infants, even though they grew up in Christian homes. He presents it as a temporary theological crisis, although Aland was highly skeptical of this characterization in his response to Jeremias.

    • Just thinking further… One wonders if it was a matter of Augustine being familiar with Latin Western Christianity, but not so much with the Eastern Greek speaking churches. Then again, his local predecessor, Tertullian, specifically wrote against infant baptism as well, while he was still in his orthodox period, if I recall correctly. Of course that in itself shows it was indeed occurring…

      • Phil,

        You’ve raised a number of questions. Some brief responses:

        1. That Tertullian opposed it means it must have been occurring. I think we have set him aside on this because of the ambiguities surrounding his theology. E.g., you say “still in his orthodox period” as if the line is crystal clear or as if we all know that he actually became a Montanist or as if we all agree on what that entails. Further, it begs the question (assumes what it has to prove) that one could deny infant baptism in the early 3rd century and still be orthodox. That said, I have a lot of personal affection for Tertullian. He was brilliant and maybe the best writer in the history of the Western church before the Reformation. He’s far more compelling than Augustine. I have no animus against him.

        2. Re Jeremias. Observing that some were being unfaithful in their administration of the covenant of grace does not mean than paedbaptism wasn’t the universal practice of the church. That’s a non sequitur. The clearest evidence we have from the early 3rd century is that infant baptism was the teaching and practice of the church. I agree that it was a crisis.

        3. Jeremias pressed details that won’t be persuasive to people who don’t already agree with him but I am not impressed with Aland’s arguments. His responses frankly reminded me of Barth on natural law (v. Brunner). Just irrational and blindly stubborn. For some, like Aland, once the master (Barth) spoke, the facts no longer mattered.

        4. The evidence from in the 2nd century is fragmentary but the evidence in the 3rd century is compelling and clear. Were paedobaptism a change it would have been controversial. It wasn’t (setting aside Tertullian).

    • Jeremias also admits that these same churchmen upon becoming leaders (some of whom we know wrote quite extensively on baptism including the formulation of detailed baptismal liturgies) never mention or reasonably allude to infant baptism. I also see now that he includes Jerome in his list of Christian-raised leaders not baptized as infants, and he was a Westerner who flourished in Rome…

    • Thanks, Dr, Clark, for your thoughts.

      For myself, in light of the fact that so many prominent and widespread church leaders (…consenting to leave the renegade Tertullian out of this – and sorry I didn’t document the data behind my portrayal of of him…) are all known to not have been baptized as Christian-raised infants, nor to have written anything about it, or even hinted at it, logically renderers Augustine’s assertion just that – an inaccurate assertion. Infant baptism simply was not “universal”, at least according to my understanding of the normal use of that term. It has also been posted out that these particular ECF’s silence is also in line with the Didache’s omission of infants in its somewhat detailed treatment of baptism.

      If all this makes me a simpleton or bad analyst, well, I guess at the end of the day, though being a church history buff and trying to be as honest and objective as possible with the evidence I encounter, I may in fact just be a simpleton and bad analyst. Admittedly, unlike yourself, I certainly don’t have any formal degrees or training.

      Having said that, I think you alluded to a valid point concerning how people process information: Those predisposed toward infant baptism will tend to cheer on Jeremias’ viewpoint, while those predisposed against it will tend to favor Aland’s evaluation. I know some general things about Barth (pseudo-neo-Reformed-ish), but relatively little about the specific dispute with Brunner, or how Aland may fit into that equation, so I can’t really consider your comparison in context.

      Something I’ve asked before: can a citation of a pre-Reformation churchman, anywhere, using the covenant rationale for infant baptism be produced? I would genuinely like to see and consider any such occurrences if they are indeed out there. The closest I’ve found is a passing remark in defense of infant baptism by Cyprian, in which he responds to the advocation that such not be done until the eighth day after birth, in accordance with Jewish circumcision (Letters, to Fidus, c.253 AD – and yes, this certainly shows that infant baptism was common and even normative at least in the time and region Cyprian lived.). He, and his colleagues, disagreed, saying an infant can be baptized at any point after birth. But his rationale does not include anything covenantal per se, and instead seems more akin to baptismal regeneration, saying that the purpose of baptism was to remit the taint of original sin – so, in effect, the sooner an infant was baptized the better. As I said, that’s the closest I’ve been able to find prior to the Reformational development of the covenantal paradigm, which was seemingly initiated by Zwingli.

      I truly don’t want to be overly adversarial about any of this. So if we end up agreeing to disagree on things, for my part thats perfectly fine. Thank you for your time, brother.

      • Phil,

        The positive evidence for the ecclesiastical sanction for infant baptism by the mid 3rd century is quite strong. Was everyone everywhere at all levels completely consistent with the professed practice of the church? No. That’s true today. The Reformed churches confess and practice infant baptism but people are not always consistent with our confession. As people, particularly at the popular level, began to conflate baptism with the thing signified, people began to postpone baptism. That can’t be used as evidence against infant baptism.

        The pre-Reformation practice of infant baptism is the entire history of the church until the Anabaptists, with the possible exception of the Montanists, the Donatists, and the Albigensians. These are not the groups to which one would want to appeal for precedent. It’s an anachronistic question. It puts the onus probandi on the wrong party. The burden is on those who would deny the consensus of the church.

        Your complaint about the understanding of infant baptism is also a little anachronistic. The church didn’t have to defend it because it wasn’t being widely challenged. It’s a little like complaining against the Apostles for not writing the Nicene Creed. We gathered to confess against the Arians when the Arians developed. We worked out a defense of infant baptism when it was challenged by the Anabaptists.

        That said, the defense was not entirely new. The substance of the defense, the continuity of the covenant of grace, the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant, was worked out by 120 by Barnabas, in 150 AD by Justin, and 170 by Irenaeus. They did work out a fairly detailed covenant theology from which the Reformed borrowed in the 16th century. Then there are places such as ch 5 and 9 in Diognetus, which might have been written by a 16th-century Protestant.

        Yes, the Reformers reformed aspects of the late-Patristic soteriology but that doesn’t obviate the agreement that existed in the mid-Patristic era nor the medieval consensus nor the Reformation consensus.

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