Tertullian Acknowledged The Existence Of Infant Baptism

God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every “petition”4 may both deceive and be deceived. 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 [parvulos]. For why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary5—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.”6 Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come;7 let them become Christians8 when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life [innocens aetas] hasten to the “remission of sins?” More caution will be exercised in worldly9 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 asketh.

Tertullian | On Baptism 18, in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 678.

NOTES

4. See note 24, [where Luke 6:30 is shown to be abused]

5. Tertullian has already allowed (in c. xvi) that baptism is not indispensably necessary to salvation.

6. Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16.

7. Or, “whither they are coming.”

8. i.e., in baptism.

9. Sæcularibus.


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7 comments

  1. Dr. Clark, is their any good research on how the early church infant baptizers would have responded to objections such as Tertullian’s?

    • Josh,

      If the question is, “did any of the Fathers reply to Tertullian’s objections to infant baptism?” I’m not aware of anything that speaks directly to this question. The first thing to do would be to read Cyprian and Augustine on this. I don’t recall seeing anything in them but they obviously were not persuaded by his objections. After Jerome, Tertullian became identified with the Montantists and thus, to a certain degree, marginalized.

      He was very concerned already about nominalism, i.e., people bearing the name Christian but not being faithful. His approach to Matthew 19 is not satisfactory and through the centuries paedobaptists have continued to appeal to it as a ground of infant baptism. E.g., May The Paedobaptist Fairly Appeal To Matthew 19:13–15?

      The significance of this passage is that, when taken with Origen’s witness, Hippolytus’ (AD 215) witness, and Cyprian’s rule (AD 253). and other such evidences the evidence is very strong in the Greek and Latin churches of the early 3rd century that infant baptism was an established practice and not controversial. Had infant baptism been recently introduced, it would have been very controversial but there is no evidence, of which I’m aware, of any controversy. Compare the relative silence and calm over infant baptism to the heated controversy over the day on which to observe the Christian pascha (later Easter). The Qurtodecimans (e.g., Polycarp) thought it ought to be a moveable observance but the opponents thought that it ought to be observed on the nearest Sunday, resurrection day. The anti-Quartodecimans won the argument but we have records of a heated controversy. Nothing like this exists regarding infant baptism.

      What makes Tertullian’s comments here outstanding is how unique they were and how relatively tentative he was.

  2. This is always good stuff. The best comprehensive piece of work I’ve encountered is J. V. Fesko’s Word, Water, and Spirit. I think he pretty much covers all the major historical positions and figures (Tertullian included). Highly recommended.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    It was fair of you to pose the question that way. Thank you. If there is no evidence of a substantial controversy in Tertullian’s time, that pretty much settles my question. I did not intend to detract from the major implications of Tertullian’s statement as you intended to show. Forgive me.

    This historical insight is illuminating, however. I certainly feel the force of the evidence. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

  4. Tertullian also endorses penance as atonement to God and baptismal regeneration, two Roman Catholic distinctives. Are you prepared to agree with him on that too?

    • Toluwaniyi,

      You’ve both misunderstood the point of posting the quotation and the quotation itself:

      1) As the publisher of the HB I don’t agree with Tertullian on this. His view approaches the Baptist view. I hold the Biblical and historic Christian view that the infant children of believers ought to receive the sign and seal of covenant baptism.

      2) The point of posting this quotation was to show that Tertullian knew of infant baptism by AD 206 or so. It was an established practice that he sought to revise. This is the closest thing I can find to controversy over infant baptism. There’s no other evidence of which I’m aware that infant baptism was controversial but there is fairly extensive evidence (e.g., Origen, same year and Hippolytus c. AD 215) that the ancient church baptized infants.

      No, though I appreciate Tertullian’s brilliance, there are a number of views he held that I’m not prepared to hold. As being “Roman Catholic,” that’s an anachronism. There was no Roman Catholic church in AD 206. There’s no evidence of a Pope in AD 206. There were only two sacraments until the 13th century. So, agreeing with Tertullian could hardly make one a “Roman Catholic.”

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