Another Particular Baptist Wrinkle: The Early Church Baptized Infants But For The Wrong Reasons


Sean writes with a question that I have received at least once before. Thus, I take it that this is an argument that is mooted in Particular Baptist circles:

The argument comes from Particular Baptists and in essence says that while the early church may have practiced infant baptism, it was not on the same basis for why the Reformed do so. Calvin’s view of infant baptism (seeing a parallel between circumcision and baptism) was a new idea and therefore it is irrelevant for us Presbyterians to point to a precedent of infant baptism in church history since the basis for it was very different than our basis for it. My question is, do we have any instances in church history where the argument for infant baptism is similar to Calvin’s understanding?

First, the evidence that the second century church did practice infant baptism is fairly strong. Very early in the 3rd century Tertullian, who seems to have become attracted to an over-realized eschatology and to the perfectionism of the Montanists (though the charge that he became a Montanist was unknown for a very long time), recommended against infant baptism. He would not have done so unless it was already an established practice. We know too from Origen, from about the same period, that infant baptism was an established practice. There is no record of controversy over the introduction of infant baptism, which, had it been a new practice, there most certainly would have been. After all, in the 1st quarter of the 2nd century there was a great controversy, the Quartodeciman Controversy, over when to observe Easter (on Passover or on the nearest Sunday). If, in their attempt to determine which was most faithful to Scripture, the day of the observance of Easter was controverted in the second-century church, it seems fair to think that a change in baptismal practice would also have been controverted. Hippolytus records infant baptism (c. AD 215) as the early Christian practice. We also know that Cyprian practiced infant baptism (AD 253). As far as Augustine knew, infant baptism was the practice of the ancient church (see resources below).

Anachronism: The Enemy of History

The great problem of this (excuse the pun) particular objection is anachronism. This is the business of reading into an earlier period the questions of a later period. The objection assumes that there have always been Baptists and, in order to defend infant baptism, the early post-apostolic Christians necessarily should have used the same arguments as the sixteenth-century Reformed defenders of infant baptism or else the sixteenth-century arguments are irrelevant.

The objection assumes facts not in evidence. It reads sixteenth-century debates back into the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The clearest evidence is that the Anabaptists, in the late teens and early twenties of the sixteenth century were the first to make what would become Baptist arguments in the 17th century. Were there people making what would become Baptist arguments prior to the rise of the Anabaptist movements? Perhaps. Were there questions about infant baptism before the rise of the Anabaptists? Certainly.

This particular objection is not a historical objection but a theological objection. It does not begin with historical evidence and draw inferences. It begins with a theological a priori, namely: believer’s baptism only is correct, and then reasons to a conclusion about what must have been the case historically.

Gnosticism & Marcion: The Second-Century Context

It is true that the early church did not defend infant baptism. As far as the evidence goes, they simply practiced it as they received it from the apostles. In what context however, did they practice it? They did so in the context of a great contest between the orthodox Christians and Gnostics (e.g., Valentinus et al.) and the followers of Marcion. Those two movements separated radically the Old and New Testaments. They posited an Old Testament god, whom the Gnostics characterized as a demi-god and whom the Marcionites rejected as a vengeful, angry deity, and a New Testament God. For the Marcionites, the God of the New Testament was entirely a God of love. For the Gnostics, he was thought to be at the top of an hierarchy of aeons. Apparently neither group was populated by  particularly astute readers since, in the NT, God is revealed to be a consuming fire just as in the OT (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Doubters should consult Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 45 [all]) or Herod (Acts 12:23). They can tell the enquirer about the God who smote the Egyptians

Against the Gnostics and the Marcionites, the early church appealed to the the unity of “the covenant” (Διαθηκη). This argument is first found in the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 120), which made the most systematic and extensive use of covenant theology among the early fathers. The same sorts of arguments were used, however, by Justin Martyr (AD c. 150) and Irenaeus (AD c. 170). So, though it is certainly true that the early fathers did not defend infant baptism on the same ground as the Reformed would later do—because they were not facing the same question. Batters typically hit the pitches thrown to them—they did practice infant baptism in a similar context as did the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutherans and Reformed.

The Reformation Context

The Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism scandalized the magisterial Protestants (i.e., the Lutherans and the Reformed). To them, the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism was tantamount to a rejection of the entire church before the Reformation. This is something that the magisterial Protestants never envisioned. Luther’s earliest defenses of infant baptism varied but eventually he settled on an argument (see resources) that the Reformed also made in the same period: We baptize infants on the basis of the divine promise and the divine command. Late in his career, Luther gave a series of lectures on Genesis. Though there are significant textual-critical questions about the records that we have, it seems fair to infer from them something of Luther’s approach to the biblical teaching concerning the covenant (of grace). His arguments (or those of his editors, for the purposes of this essay it does not matter), were substantially identical to those made by the Reformed in the same period.

Among the Reformed, Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) was among the first to respond to the Anabaptists. He toyed briefly with siding with them before rejecting their arguments. For his trouble he has earned, even among modern Anabaptists the label: time server (i.e., a sell out to the city authorities). The core of his argument in the 1520s was an appeal to the unity of the covenant (of grace). In 1534, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) responded to the Anabaptist threat by articulating essentially the same arguments (though I am not claiming that Bullinger depended upon or even read Barnabas) that Barnabas made against the Gnostics. He appealed to the unity of the covenant (of grace) to defend and explain the fundamental unity of salvation in Scripture. In short, his essence of his argument was that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. This argument has been received and repeated by the Reformed ever since.

Connections and Conclusion

What is the connection of the Reformed response to the Anabaptists and to the Baptists (since the early 17th century) to the Patristic period? The connection is this: the Reformed made (and make) essentially the same argument against the Anabaptists (and later the Baptists) that Barnabas, Justin, Irenaeus, et al. made against their opponents regarding the unity of the covenant (of grace). The fathers did not have to defend infant baptism because it was not controverted but they did have to defend the unity of salvation. The Reformed did have to defend infant baptism but they did so by defending the essential unity of the covenant of grace. They Reformed saw in the Anabaptists (and later, the Baptists) the same sort of threat of a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments that Barnabas et al. faced from the Gnostics and Marcionites. In response they made essentially the same argument: The same God who made covenants in the Old Testament, who made a promise to be a God to believers and to their children, is the same God who saved us in Jesus Christ. Those covenant promises did not go away. They were re-expressed in a New Covenant context but God is one. The faith is one. Baptism is one (even if administered as circumcision under types and shadows). The administration of the covenant promises varies between the Old and New Testaments but the essence of the promise does not: I will be a God to you and to your children (Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39).


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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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