I’ve been delayed in finishing part 2 of ‘Infant baptism, why not?’ Sorry. I offer the caveat that I’m an ordinary layman not a patristic scholar. I’ve done my best to not just throw out a handful of quotes from the early fathers (lists of this sort are easy enough to find) but to check out the context when I could, and also look for contrary views.
In discussing the historical evidence in favor of infant baptism we need to look first at baptism in pre Christian Judaism. I had mentioned in the scriptural reasons that the baptism of John the Baptist was not Christian baptism. What John did was an twist on an existing practice in first century Judaism. It involves the practice of ritual washing “unless they be washed, they eat not: and many other things there are that have been delivered to them to observe, the washings of cups and of pots, and of brazen vessels, and of beds.” (Mt 7:4)
One type of these ritual washings called a ‘tevilah’ involved the immersion of a person. These washings, are/were (and still are today) typically done by persons who were ritually unclean. What John does is novel. His washing is for repentance from sin, not ceremonial uncleanness. His audience would have understood his baptism in the context of ritual washing. Additionally when a pagan family converted to Judaism the process included one of these tevilah, this is still practiced today. These ritual washings for conversion to Judaism could be (are still today?) also given to young children and infants (according to the Talmud, Ketubot 11a.)
We see the practice of baptizing households in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, 1 Cor. 1:16). If we place it in the context of Jewish precursor to Christian baptism then the idea that any infants would be included is only logical.
We do not have an explicit reference to baptizing infants until the early third century. Many apologists for infant baptism will point to earlier references of people saying things like “he was a disciple from childhood”. A discussion of whether baptism is inferred by these statements would be drawn out. I think beyond the scope of a blog post, as well as weak. Let’s look at some of the earliest explicit references.
In the early 3rd century (around 215AD) Hippolytus of Rome, in his work The Apostolic Tradition (21), wrote these instructions concerning the baptism of families of converts: “The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.” This work, which contains descriptions of sacramental and liturgical practice, was an attempt by Hippolytus to record the tradition received from the apostles.
Likewise we have the witness of Origen (writing about 250 A.D ) who tells us “The Church has received, from the apostles, the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.” (Commentary on Romans 5:9). In his commentary on Leviticus he also comments on infant baptism “Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine mysteries, knew there are in everyone innate strains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit””
The first voice I was able to find in support of putting off baptism is that of Tertullian “let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?” More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine!” Now an important point with Tertullian is that he is not a Church father. This is because he was a rigorist, and ended up breaking communion with the Catholic Church to join a rigorist sect, the Montanists. For the sake of brevity, but at the risk of oversimplification, the Montanists considered sins committed after baptism to be essentially unpardonable. If we continue with the same passage, we see this idea reflected “For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred–in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom–until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.” (on Baptism, chap. 18). In other words you should wait until the risk of fornication is eliminated, because you will need baptism to take away the sins of your youth. Sins which are unpardonable. Note that his reasons for delaying baptism (because it takes away sin) are denied by almost all modern Christians who reject infant baptism.
Moving on to what St. Cyprian of Carthage (250s A.D.) has to say, we encounter a debate about the age when baptism is appropriate. Whether one should be baptized within the first few days after being born, or whether we should delay baptism… until… one is older… like perhaps… eight days. Because circumcision was given on the eighth day in the old covenant. “In respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their 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” Epistle LVIII:2
I think I’ve covered what one would reasonably expect from an ordinary blog post. There’s one thing missing. With all the contentious debates which took place in the early Church, we have no record of a debate objecting to the baptism of infants, which if it was an innovation would most certainly taken place.
I’d like to close this out with a quote from the great golden mouthed one himself, St. John Chrysostom. Just because he’s awesome.
“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors. For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his members” (Quoted by St. Augustine in, Augustine Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).
Update: Origen in his Homily #14 on Luke says “Little children are baptized… even small children are baptized”