Evidence for Infant Baptism in the Early Church
Christian Churches that do not baptize infants take a good deal of offense at those of us who do. What is the witness of the early church in regard to the baptism of infants? Turns out there is quite a bit, both from the writings of the church fathers and inscriptions that have been found on the tombs of infants and very young children. Here is a selection of such evidence:
Evidence for Infant Baptism in the Church Fathers and Inscriptions
The following is intended not as irrefutable evidence, nor as the first line of an apologetic for infant baptism. It is certainly neither. The Scriptures themselves, especially the Scriptural teaching of sin, grace, and faith, form the clear basis for the practice. However these passages do present the clear practice of infant baptism in the ancient church of the second through the fourth centuries.
Irenaeus: For he came to save all by means of himself — all, I say, who by him are born again to God — infants, children, adolescents, young men, and old men. (Against Heresies II.22.4)
Hippolytus: 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 answer or someone from their family. And next they shall baptism the grown men; and last the women. (Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5)
Origen: I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. Of what kinds? Or when did they sin? But since “No one is exempt from stain,” one removes the stain by the mystery of baptism. For this reason infants are baptized. For “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Homily on Luke 14:5).
[After quoting Psalm 51:5 and Job 14:4] These verses may be adduced when it is asked why, since the baptism of the church is given for the remission of sins, baptism according to the practice of the church is given even to infants; since indeed if there is in infants nothing which ought to pertain to forgiveness and mercy, the grace of baptism would be superfluous. (Homily on Leviticus 8:3).
[After quoting Leviticus 12:8 and Psalm 51:5] For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit. On account of these stains the body itself is called the body of sin. (Commentary on Romans 5:9)
Cyprian: In respect of the case of infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after 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… Spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision… we ought to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins – that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another” (Letter 58 to Fidus).
Augustine: For from the infant newly born to the old man bent with age, as there is none shut out from baptism, so there is none who in baptism does not die to sin. (Enchiridion; ch. 43)
Here the words of Everett Ferguson are appropriate: “Early Christian inscriptions, which in the largest numbers come from the environs of Rome, furnish some instances of child and infant baptism for the third century . . . Nearly all the early Christian inscriptions are epitaphs. A considerable number of these are for the graves of children. The vast majority give no evidence whether the child was baptized or not . . . Actually the word “baptism” is seldom used. The idea is expressed by “received grace,” “made a believer” or “neophyte” (newly planted ” used to mean “newly baptized”) — from Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries; Revised Edition (Abilene: ACU Press, 1984) .
To the sacred dead. Florentius made this monument to his worthy son Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months, and five days. Since he was dearly loved by his grandmother, and she saw that he was going to die, she asked from the church that he might depart from the world a believer. (ILCV I:1343, from the third century; edited by E. Diehl (second edition; Berlin, 1961))
Postumius Eutenion, a believer, who obtained holy grace the day before his birthday at a very late hour and died. He lived six years and was buried on the fifth of Ides of July on the day of Jupiter on which he was born. His soul is with the saints in peace. Felicissimus, Eutheria, and Festa his grandmother to their worthy son Postumius. (ILCV I:1524, from the early fourth century)
Sweet Tyche lived one year, ten months, fifteen days, Received [grace] on the eighth day before the Kalends. Gave up [her soul] on the same day. (Inscriptiones latinae christianae veteres, Vol. I number 1531)
Irene who lived with her parents ten months and six days received [grace] seven days before the Ides of April and gave up [her soul] on the Ides of April. (ILCV I:1532)
To Proiecto, neophyte infant, who lived two years seven months. (ILCV I:1484)
Photo courtesy of Don Danz, www.DanzFamily.com