Hippolytus (c. 215 AD): Baptize Infants

3. And they shall put off their clothes.
4. And they shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents or someone from their family answer for them.
5. And next they shall baptize the grown men; and last the women….

Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, cap. 21 ed. Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick (London and Ridgefield, CN: The Alban Press and Morehouse Publishing, 1937, 2nd edition 1968, rev. 1992), 33.

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Clark.

    Can you post or link us to a single page that contains all the quotes from early church fathers regarding infant baptism?

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Do we know what precisely was involved with the baptized “answering for themselves”? Was that essentially the same as what we would call today, “making a profession of faith,” or something else?

    Thank you!

    • Thanks. I thought so, but didn’t want to just assume. And thank you for always being willing to answer questions! I learn a lot from this site, including the comment section, so I truly appreciate it.

  3. What are your thoughts on Stander and Louw’s comments here: “Those who could not speak for themselves could be very young children who needed assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. They were not exempted from the teaching and fasting preliminaries etc.”

    • Special, desperate pleading.

      When Augustine says, “because they themselves are not able to respond” we all understand it to refer to infant baptism but when Hippolytus says the very same thing it means something else? That’s desperate.

    • Then why do you see the quote as special, desperate pleading? Why would they be doing this?

      • People stake out positions for a variety of reasons. Question is: Given the evidence, what is the most likely interpretation? That Augustine meant infants but Hippolytus meant mute children seems desperate.

  4. There is much uncertainty with regard to the date, authorship and meaning of this passage sometimes attributed to Hippolytus of Rome. It is from the much debated work called the “Apostolic Tradition” of which David Wright notes “Almost everything concerning this text remains the subject of lively scholarly argument” (What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? [England: Paternoster Press, 2005], p. 38).


    “This quotation from the Apostolic Tradition is found in a Latin translation which dates from the fourth century. Some scholars have even suggested that it is not unlikely that this verse was inserted in the Latin translation since incidentally it was also in the fourth century that infant baptism became popular….One must remember that the ancient translators had no objections to inserting and omitting phrases from the text from which they translated. They often adapted texts to suit their present situation. This can be clearly seen when one compares, for example, the extant sections of the Greek, Sahidic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Boharic translations of the Apostolic Tradition…The most important argument, however, for the later addition of this sentence is that it does not fit in very well in the whole pericope. As Aland (1963:43ff.) has pointed out, the sections which precede this baptismal regulation, deal exclusively with adult catechumens…He also refers to the Coptic translation having a statement that three years are required for a person to receive instruction in the Christian faith before baptism was administered…. Those who could not speak for themselves could be very young children who needed assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. They were not exempted from the teaching and fasting preliminaries etc.” ” (Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw, Baptism In The Early Church [Webster, New York: Carey Publications, 2004], pp. 77, 78)

    The concept of having an adult speak for young children, even when the children were capable of speaking, may be in accord with a provision made by a council in Carthage (318 AD), for sick people to have somebody else speak for them during the baptismal ceremonies. (Cannon 45)

    Back to Wright:

    “Is a child’s physical and mental capacity in view, or is the ability more juridical, implying the Roman recognition that at the age of seven children entered into certain rights to speak for themselves? Augustine and Jerome would later treat seven as a new age of Christian responsibility, Augustine in connection with the baptism of a boy speaking for himself. In what terms a parent or other relative spoke for a non-responding child we do not know, and no source tells us until ca. 400.” (p. 40)

    • There are lots of difficulties with this work but David had a strong animus against infant baptism. Neither Dix nor the other experts on this work suggested that is a spurious passage.

      Honestly, David’s work on baptism baffles me. He argued, bizarrely, that the WCF teaches baptismal regeneration. Ridiculous.

      The contrast between adults, who could respond and infants, who can’t is clear enough.

    • Phil,
      You keep pressing the concept that in the early church there were some who did not practice infant baptism, and therefore it was not the universally accepted practice. Are you not using the exception to deny the rule?

      What I think becomes clear in this discussion is that the majority of the orthodox church fathers defended infant baptism as a sign offering the gospel and as a seal that they had received what it offers, when they believed. Those that wanted to delay baptism seem have misunderstood the nature of the sacrament as conferring the grace it only represents until the recipient believes. It is in this misunderstanding that errors arise. That is at the root of baptismal regeneration, and the misconception that it washes away sin, so it is best to wait until just before you die, because you can only be baptized once. Perhaps it is also one of the impulses that led to some to insist that one had to profess faith before baptism, because they did not see it as simply a sign, but they wanted the reality of the thing signified to be one and the same. So if you were baptized, you were a certified Christian.

  5. It seems very ironic to me that the Baptists and the Roman Catholics actually do the same thing, they conflate the sign with the thing it signifies. They both look to the sign as confirmation of regeneration!

  6. Mr Clark,
    I heard a story whereby young Athanasius was advised to delay the baptisms of his young child friends because they were not properly catechised. Thoughts?

    • Here’s a detailed quote:
      ‘Rufinus relates a story that as Bishop Alexander stood by a window, he watched boys playing on the seashore below, imitating the ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and discovered that one of the boys (Athanasius) had acted as bishop. After questioning Athanasius, Bishop Alexander informed him that the baptisms were genuine, as both the form and matter of the sacrament had been performed through the recitation of the correct words and the administration of water, and that he must not continue to do this as those baptized had not been properly catechized. He invited Athanasius and his playfellows to prepare for clerical careers.’

      • T,

        1. It’s narrative via Rufinus and not Athanasius’ direct teaching. Rufinus may or may not be getting the story right.

        2. I don’t see how this point invalidates infant baptism.

        The Baptists know a priori either that the ancient church didn’t baptize infants or that infant baptism cannot be correct and so the objections they make are endless.

  7. As I understand it, all churches that practice paedobaptism of covenant children, also practice credobaptism in the case of those who were never baptized as infants, and ask to be baptized. In the old covenant, those who wanted to be circumcised to be part of Israel, were catechized in the religion of Israel before they could be circumcised. Likewise, those who want to be given the sign of baptism, when they are old enough to answer for themselves, are catechized in order to be able to give a credible profession of faith, before being baptized.

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