Cyprian: Baptize Infants (253 AD)

2. But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” as far as we can, we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.

Cyprian of Carthage, “The Epistles of Cyprian,” Ep. 57.2 [64.2 in the Oxford edition] in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 353–354.

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35 comments

  1. Should this not be taken as Cyprian and his colleagues DISagreeing with the person (Fidus) who was drawing the analogy between the timing of baptism and circumcision?

    • I’m sure not finding anything like that in the larger context. If you believe I’m missing something relavant in the letter would you please specify what?

      Directly, the plain reading seems to be, “…you [Fidus] say…that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded…[but] we all thought very differently.” Cyprian then goes on to state that their support of infant baptism was based on the notion that it remits original sin.

      • Aren’t you missing the intent of the subordinate clause? “which YOU say ought not…”.

        It’s the opponents who deny the analogy w/circumcision and the council that affirms it.

    • That would certainly not be the way I read it.

      “But in respect of the case of the infants, which you [Fidus] say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and [still Fidus’ view] that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so [the reasoning of the next point as determined by those previous] that you [Fidus] think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we [Cyprian and the council] all thought very differently in our council.

    • I also believe my interpretation is pretty plainly borne out in the remainder of the letter. Cyprian argues that, UNLIKE the “shadow” of physical circumcision, baptism can be given immediately after birth, and indeed should be as soon as possible, in essence because it is instrumental in effecting spiritual circumcision.

    • Certainly, but for the reasons given I would refute the inferences conveyed in the title of the post. Pax, and have a blessed Lord’s Day.

    • Phil,
      As I read and reread this thread, and your comments on two previous posts on baptism, I wonder what exactly is the point you are trying to make. It seems that you are suggesting that because Cyprian was advocating for baptism soon after birth he was denying the continuity of the covenant sign of baptism as replacing circumcision, because he was arguing against those who wanted to delay baptism until the eighth day, based on the timing of circumcision. You say that Cyprian’s reason for advocating earlier baptism,” was based on the notion that it remits original sin.” I wonder if you are inferring this from the text used on this post or from some other source, because I do not see it in the text being discussed.
      Also you seem to suggest that because Cyprian and the council were arguing against delaying baptism until the eighth day, they were disagreeing with the connection between circumcision and baptism. That is because of the way you break up the text, as the opponents arguing for the example of circumcision, only you omit that it was only on the basis of the timing, and you quote, “we all thought very differently,” so it seems to me you are giving the impression that Cyprian does not agree with the relationship of circumcision and baptism. This seems to me to be rather misleading, but maybe I misunderstand you, so I would appreciate some clarification.

  2. They were not disagreeing with infant baptism, only that it would need to be delayed until the eighth day, because unlike circumcision, baptism would not present a danger of blood loss that could happen with earlier circumcision.

    • The question in the discussion is the timing of infant baptism. The opponents argue that in keeping with the timing of circumcision, infants should not be baptized until the eighth day, or later. The council disagrees, saying that, “the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man.” I believe this is because of the high rate of infant mortality in those times, that they were anxious to have children receive the sign of promise as soon as possible, not that the sign itself would regenerate them, but because we do not know how the Spirit may work, and so it is possible that the Spirit might use the visible sign of the gospel as the means of grace to regenerate elect infants even if they died soon after birth. I am assuming that the Lord delayed circumcision until the eighth day because the blood loss would be too stressful for younger infants. If there is a different reason for circumcision on the eighth day, I would be happy to know what it is.

    • The letter makes clear Fidus’ specific reasoning, which was a supposed unseemliness and uncleanness of just born infants. Nowhere is the issue of mortality mentioned, so that can only be conjecture.

    • A quick Google search suggests seven is the number of completion and eight represents the new beginning as a member of the covenant. Also eight souls were saved in the arc to begin the repopulation of the earth after the flood.

    • I think it is clear from the text that Cyprian and the council were arguing that infants younger than eight days have the right to receive the sign of the covenant of grace, “since the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man,” against the opponents who argued that infants “ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after birth, and that the ancient law of circumcision should be regarded.” Neither the council nor the opponents were arguing against infant baptism, only on the timing. Cyprian and the council felt infants could be baptized sooner than he eighth day, while the opponents thought it should be timed according to circumcision, on the eighth day.

    • For Dr. Clark…

      You stated in a comment that “There are those (mostly Baptists) arguing that there is no Patristic evidence of infant baptism.”

      Can you point me in the direction of any Baptists who argue that Augustine didn’t teach infant baptism?

      • Chris,

        It has been argued to me repeatedly that “the fathers” (patristics) did not teach infant baptism.

        I’m not responsible for the quality of the claims made to me.

    • @Dr. Clark. So they said “the fathers”? That’s *slightly* different historically, right? Most would be thinking of the Apostolic Fathers. But, yes, I understand that “patristic” means “father” in a sense, but was that the sense that they argued.

      Again, if you point me in the direction of someone making that argument, I would like to correct them.

      • Chris,

        You’re welcome to page through my Twitter feed and the combox here. I process dozens, sometimes hundreds of comments, emails, & tweets daily.

  3. This is tangential to the discussion above, but I have been told that an infant’s blood-clotting ability peaks around the eighth day after birth. Thus the timing for circumcision was not a random number that Moses picked, but rather the command providentially takes our human frailty into account.

    Reading the rest of the letter, 1) I shudder to think what the protocol for cleaning up newborns might have been, and 2) it might help in the above disagreement to know exactly what Cyprian meant by “to be admitted to the grace of Christ.” Is it clear from his other writings that he means remission of original sin, as suggested above, or something else?

    • Hi Don,

      Here is how Augustine interpreted Cyprian (and the Council’s) decree:

      CHAPTER 10 [V.]—HE SHOWS THAT CYPRIAN HAD NOT DOUBTED THE ORIGINAL SIN OF INFANTS

      Accordingly, it is not without reason that the blessed Cyprian carefully shows how from the very first the Church has held this as a well understood article of faith. When he was asserting the fitness of infants only just born to receive Christ’s baptism, on a certain occasion when he was consulted whether this ought to be administered before the eighth day, he endeavoured, as far as he could, to prove that they were perfect,4 lest any one should suppose, from the number of the days (because it was on the eighth day that infants were before circumcised), that they so far lacked perfection. However, after bestowing upon them the full support of his argument, he still confessed that they were not free from original sin; because if he had denied this, he would have removed all reason for the very baptism which he was maintaining their fitness to receive. You can, if you wish, read for yourself the epistle of the illustrious martyr On the Baptism of Little Children; for it cannot fail to be within reach at Carthage. But I have deemed it right to transcribe some few statements of it into this letter of mine, so far as applies to the question before us; and I pray you to mark them carefully. “Now with respect,” says he, “to the case of infants, whom you declared it would be improper to baptize if presented within the second and third day after their birth, since that due regard ought to be paid to the law of circumcision of old, so that you thought that the infant should not be baptized and sanctified before the eighth day after its birth,—a far different view has been formed of the question in our council. Not a man there assented to what you thought ought to be done; but the whole of us rather determined that to no one born of men ought God’s mercy and grace to be denied. For since the Lord in His gospel says, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” so far as in us lies, not a soul ought, if possible, to be lost.” You observe how in these words he supposes that it is fraught with ruin and death, not only to the flesh, but also to the soul, for one to depart this life without that saving sacrament. Wherefore, if he said nothing else, it was competent to us to conclude from his words that without sin the soul could not perish. See, however, what (when he shortly afterwards maintains the innocence of infants) he at the same time allows concerning them in the plainest terms: “But if,” says he, “anything could hinder men from the attainment of grace, then their heavier sins might rather hinder those who have reached the stages of adults, and advanced life, and old age. Since, however, remission of sins is given even to the greatest sinners after they have believed, however much they have previously sinned against God, and since nobody is forbidden baptism and grace, how much more ought an infant not to be forbidden who newborn has done no sin, except that from having been born carnally after Adam he has contracted from his very birth the contagion of the primeval death! How, too, does this fact contribute in itself the more easily to their reception of the forgiveness of sins, that the remission which they have is not of their own sins, but of those of another!”

      Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 72–73.

      For Cyprian, to be “admitted to the grace of Christ” is to be admitted into the visible church by baptism. Did it mean more than that? Perhaps. I am undecided. Certainly, for Augustine, it meant more than that.

      There are those (mostly Baptists) arguing that there is no Patristic evidence of infant baptism. My point is to show that there clearly was. Then they respond, “Well, they didn’t agree with everything you Reformed teach about baptism.” To which I reply, “So what? What’s in question is the practice of infant baptism. It’s clear enough to me that it was being practiced in the early 3rd century and beyond doubt by the mid-3rd century. The only people opposing it were schismatics of various kinds. Further, the conceptual framework (covenant theology) within which the Reformed would defend infant baptism was not invented in the 16th century (as some Baptists are arguing) but was well developed in the early 2nd century in Barnabas, in the mid-2nd century in Justin, and in the late 2nd century by Irenaeus. I cannot prove conclusively that they were practicing infant baptism (even though there’s a pseudonymous catechism attributed to Justin that teaches it) but there are some hints, which, when combined with their covenant theology, certainly point in that direction.

      Phil may be right. It may be that Cyprian’s opponents were pressing him to baptize on the 8th day and not before.

    • “…the conceptual framework (covenant theology) within which the Reformed would defend infant baptism was not invented in the 16th century (as some Baptists are arguing) but was well developed in the early 2nd century in Barnabas, in the mid-2nd century in Justin, and in the late 2nd century by Irenaeus. I cannot prove conclusively that they were practicing infant baptism (even though there’s a pseudonymous catechism attributed to Justin that teaches it) but there are some hints, which, when combined with their covenant theology, certainly point in that direction…”

      I would genuinely like to see all of this fully developed and documented. If such a venture were indeed sound and convincing it would certainly effect a paradigm shift in the way I have understood the history of infant baptism.

      • Phil,

        At least a few scholars have been writing about Patristic covenant theology for 20-25 years. Everett Ferguson has called Irenaeus a “covenant theologian.” Lig Duncan was my introduction to the field. His PhD diss. was a great introduction. One of our MA students has done an MA thesis on Patristic covenant theology too.

        Read Barnabas. That’s the starting point. He’s foundational and for a treatise from the period its quite well developed. Justin is interesting and Irenaeus adds to the picture. There are substantial sections in each.

        Here’s a starting point:

        https://heidelblog.net/2015/08/a-brief-history-of-covenant-theology/

        I give the references here:

        “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013). You should be able to get it via inter-library loan.

    • Thank you for the link to a brief history of covenant theology. It is very satisfyingly convincing. Perhaps it is somewhat of an oversimplification to say this, but I am more and more convinced that the whole of Scripture revolves around the Abrahamic covenant, when God alone walked through the pieces, promising to do all the covenant requires and to suffer the death curse for the failures of His people, while Abraham was in a helpless stupor. Infant circumcision and infant baptism, as the covenant sign, so perfectly function as the sign of promise passed on to us in our helplessness just as it was given to Abraham in his helplessness.

    • Thanks again for your detailed explanation of the historical context.

      I guess my concern in asking was that if it’s true that 1) infant baptism was the norm of the early church but 2) the people baptizing the infants believed that baptism conferred salvation, then that would not be very convincing to a Baptist. (Obviously the historical reality is more complicated than that, as well as different or evolving meaning of terms like “admitted to the grace of Christ.”)

      • Don,

        1. The historical evidence is the historical evidence. Establishing that, as best we can, is my first job as a historian.
        2. The second question is how they understood it. It seems to me that there were a variety of understandings of baptism in the early church. I’ve argued that the Nicene Creed does not require us to hold baptismal regeneration. That doctrine was fairly widely held by the mid 5th century but the picture is much less clear before then. I have learned not to accept at face value the claims of the secondary literature because it is often written from a Romanist or Anglo-Catholic point of view whereby every connection between the sign (the sacrament) and the thing signified is interpreted through sacerdotalist/ex opere lenses.
        3. The Ancient Church made mistakes but infant baptism wasn’t one of them. Some early expressions of the Trinity, in the 2nd and early 3rd century, were not perfect but I do not therefore reject the doctrine of the Trinity. So too with infant baptism. Even if my understanding varies with the way it was understood by some of the early fathers that doesn’t obviate the practice.
        4. Ultimately, however, our theology, piety, and practice must be determined by God’s Word (sola Scriptura). It was arguments from Scripture that convinced me of the truth of the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant.

    • “3. The Ancient Church made mistakes but infant baptism wasn’t one of them. Some early expressions of the Trinity, in the 2nd and early 3rd century, were not perfect but I do not therefore reject the doctrine of the Trinity. So too with infant baptism. Even if my understanding varies with the way it was understood by some of the early fathers that doesn’t obviate the practice.”

      This is nags at me from a Baptist perspective:

      I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that the theology underlining a practice should corrupt much more rapidly than essential elements of a practice itself. I think that’s a rational conclusion. People will continue with rituals and ceremonies long after the meaning has been forgotten. The concrete motions should outlast the abstract concepts.

      And we could also imagine that of all the churches distributed around the Roman Empire, some of them at least would have tried to preserve the “original, Apostolic” doctrine of credobaptism, so that there would be some resistance on record. I mean, this is how languages work too, right? Isolated regions prove more resistant to language evolution.

      But we look for evidence, just 100-200 years after the death of the apostles and… nothing. Any rejections of infant baptism that are noted (e.g. Tertullian) seem for misguided and pragmatic reasons, more than anything else. No record of any holdouts, fighting for the “original, Apostolic” practice of credobaptism. Even though they would go to the lions or pummel each other in the faces to preserve other apostolic teachings.

      Intuitively, that’s pretty hard to swallow, and it’s been bothering me for a while.

      • Andrew,

        American evangelical laity tend to be quite disconnected from the history of the church and from its inherent messiness. They tend to read Acts through American evangelical lenses and then skip over the history of the church until the Reformation and then again until the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a lot of history in those gaps and that history is important and formative.

        The Reformers did not look at the history of the church that way. They understood the pre-Reformation church to be family, messy, but family. That’s why they were Reformers of the existing church and not radicals starting over or starting from scratch like the Anabaptists.

        As I said, the theology underlying the practice of infant baptism was, in some places, at some times, impure but you didn’t make those qualifications. Ask a typical evangelical about the Trinity and he will give you a modalist answer. Modalism is heresy but the doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox. Take an evangelical pastor, who has a modalist view of the Trinity (i.e., the thinks that God looks like the Father, then like the Son, then like the Spirit but doesn’t understand that God is one in three persons) baptizing people in the name of the Trinity. Does his error wipe out his baptism? No. Formally, it’s a Trinitarian baptism.

        You’re right about the theoretical “credobaptist” resistance. I don’t see it. Were “credobaptism” the original practice, the rise of infant baptism would have provoked a massive reaction. Consider that the church nearly split over the date on which Easter was to be celebrated. If that is true (and it is) how much more intense would have been the fight over baptism but there is no evidence of any such fight.

        I do believe that there were 2nd and 3rd century (and beyond) pastors administering baptism in an orthodox way, with an orthodox understanding. Some of them knew that the sign is not the thing itself but, over time, that distinction was obscured by the notion that the sign is the thing signified. There are reasons for this (e.g., the growing influence of philosophical realism and reaction to schismatic movements). Look at the Epistle to Diognetus. It is marvelously mature for a 150 AD treatise. Whoever wrote that (possibly Polycarp but who knows?) reflects a theology that is much more like that of Scripture than we see in other works from the same era. There were others. Barnabas had a very mature covenant theology (c. 120 AD). There are also weirdos, e.g., Shepherd of Hermas. As I say, it was messy.

    • Don,
      What really sets the Reformed apart from all others, including the so called Reformed Baptists is how they see circumcision and baptism. To the Reformed it is a visible form of the Word, the gospel offering salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The sign only points to the reality, it is not the thing it is pointing to. But the confusion of the sign with the reality has been a perennial source of error in the churches. We see this confusion in the early church, as these posts show us. Although there were misunderstandings about the purpose of baptism, it is clear that infant baptism was the accepted practice, in spite of the superstition of some who wanted to delay it until later in life, as a way of washing away sin, and others who thought baptism would regenerate a person, even so they could cooperate with grace to earn salvation. There were others who introduced a kind of dualism, who taught that God dealt with the Jews as an earthly people, who obeyed for earthly rewards and they connected the Abrahamic covenant and circumcision with an obligation to obey the law of Moses. They saw no real connection between circumcision and baptism. To them the new covenant only is the covenant of grace, and baptism is a spiritual sign demonstrating that you have been saved, not as a promise of salvation that depends on believing the promise, but as something you do to make a public demonstration of faith. We see this line of reasoning being developed in 1689 Federalism, based on their historic deviations from infant baptism, because they want baptism to be not a promise, but to mean that one actually has what baptism represents. So that is basic to, and distinguishes Reformed theology, that the covenant of grace unites all of Scripture, and circumcision was the sign promising it, under the old covenant administration, and baptism is pointing to it under the new covenant administration. The sign becomes a seal, certifying possession of the thing the sign points to when the promise is believed, and only God can know for certain who truly believes. Baptists have a stumbling block to overcome when it comes to understanding why the Reformed baptize infants. To them we are necessarily saying the infants are regenerated, because that is what baptism means to them.

  4. I was always taught that baptism should occur as soon as possible. It all depends on the health of the mother, the child, and the availability of a minister. I have heard stories where it was months before baptism, as a minister was not readily available. I don’t think the when is as important as the fact that it occurs.

  5. Hey Clark, have you read Crampton’s ‘From Peadobaptism to Creadobaptism’? I ask as he argues that 1 Corinthians 7:14 doesnt prove infant baptism but the opposite: the fact Paul had to teĺl the church at Corinth that its children werent unclean implies they werent baptised to begin with.

    • Dear Toluwan,

      1. My friends might address me with “Hey Clark” but I don’t think we’ve met.

      2. No, I have not read this work.

      3. I don’t argue that 1 Cor 7:14, by itself, proves infant baptism. It’s one piece of evidence in a larger argument.

      4. The objection rests on a misreading (apparently) of the context and thus a false premise. Paul appeals to what the Corinthians accepted as a given, the holiness of covenant children, to correct the way they were thinking about unbelieving spouses.

      5. Therefore the conclusion does not follow (non sequitur).

    • Toluwan,
      The children and the husband are set apart, sanctified, because they are part of the family unit, where one of the parents is a believer. It seems to me that invokes the Abrahamic promise, I will be a God, to you and to your children, and its sign of infant initiation.

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