More on the emergence of infant baptism

A reader contacted me just today on a point we discussed some time back, namely, the prevalence (or otherwise) of infant baptism in the Post-Nicene Church. Our case in that instance makes this discovery from our reader all the more interesting.

A while back, there was a discussion on your blog about Infant Baptism, and when it came in. Apropos of that, I came across an intriguing little quotation from St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Orations 40.28:

“Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we tobaptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.

“A proof of this is found in the Circumcision on the eighth day, which was a sort of typical seal, and was conferred on children before they had the use of reason. And so is the anointing of thedoorposts, Exodus 12:22 which preserved the firstborn, though applied to things which had no consciousness. But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. For this is how the matter stands; at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, whenreason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.”

Evidently, he feels the need to justify it, but it was moving further and further back.

Interesting, isn’t it?



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3 responses to “More on the emergence of infant baptism

  1. William Tighe

    The best place to go to for information on this question is the controversy between Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Jeremias published *Die Kindertaufe in den ersten vier Jahrhunderten* in 1958; it appeared in English in 1960 from SCM Press (London) as *Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries;* Aland replied with a book which, in the English translation published by SCM Press in 1962, was entitled *Did the Early Church Baptize Infants;* and Jeremias replied in 1962 *Nochmals: Die Anfaenge der Kindertaufe,* which SCM Press published in 1963 as *The Origins of Infant Baptism: A further study in reply to Kurt Aland.*

    I read all three of these some years ago. Jeremias demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt from both patristic and epigraphical evidence that the Early Church baptized young children in the Third as well as the Fourth centuries, and probably in the Second as well — and, at least in the cases of new-born children unlikely to live as well as mortally-ill infants, babies as well. He also discredits the then-fashionable idea in some German circles (and which, as he tells readers, he had earlier held himself) that St. Paul held that the children of Christian parents did not require baptism at all. There was a fair amount of quibbling in Aland’s book and Jeremias’s reply about differentiating “children” and “infants” — to little point as it seemed to me.

    What Jeremias does also show quite clearly is that the only Early Church writer that seems to have opposed infant baptism (on the pragmatic grounds that if they were subsequently brought up as pagans by kinsfolk or others their damnation as apostates would be all-but-certain) was Tertullian (whose arguments against it, however, do show that it was widely practiced in his day), while Gregory of Nazianzus thought it should be delayed to the age of 3 or 4 because of his Platonic idea of the relationship between the individual’s memory and his soul, and how it was not until the age of 3 or 4 that a permanent, if unconscious, memory of the baptism could be imprinted on the soul.

  2. matthias

    I think thta it is interesting that amongst the radical Reformation followers-the AnaBaptists-although there was disavowal of infant baptism per se,some followed the lead of the Waldensians and Baptised children of their followers who presented the children for Baptism. At my own church there are baby dedications ,with family and or friends standing as supporters (read godparents) of the parents in bringing up the child in the Faith. Thus Baptists despite their belief in adult immersion,do have a tie with their preReformation heritage to a small extent.