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Infant Baptism in the First Five Centuries


Infant baptism refers to the practice of baptizing children few days after they are born. The question of necessity and purpose of baptizing infants has been of interest to theologians since the first century. Theologians have been keen to show justification for infant baptism while others especially in evangelical churches have strongly opposed such practice as insignificant or even unscriptural. This essay aims at investigating the practice of infant baptism and theological positions posited by thinkers of the first to the fifth century on the same. The aim of the investigation is to understand the root or beginnings of early baptism and its justification.

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Those who opposed infant baptism, e.g. bishops Callistus and Zephyrinnus of the second century, argued that there is no scripture that clearly alludes to such practice. Actually, baptism as a gift is supposed to signify the transformation work of grace in an individual. The baptized is born a new as Jesus teaches that all who wish to follow him have to be born again. Overtime, those opposed to the practice have endeavored to show that scriptures used to justify infant baptism do not allude to any such a thing explicitly. Someone may only imagine that given words like household for example were used; it means even infants were baptized. They argue that as indicated in Romans 6:4 or Colossians 2: 11-12, baptism by essence is dying with Christ and rising with Christ. The dying to sin and being born to life should necessarily involve change of heart and commitment to a given way of doing and living in general.

They further argue that baptism as a sacrament is a symbol of final cross over. The individual by accepting to be baptized is publicly declaring his or her believe in the loving presence of God. He or she through the action of baptism is committing himself or herself to a life time personal relationship with God. To the extent that baptism is the physical sign of change of heart and handing oneself to the guidance of God’s providence, then infant baptism does not make much sense. What is proper for infants that every parent ought to do is to dedicate them. According to this school of thought, dedication has scriptural backing and not infant baptism.

Opposition to Infant Baptism

Some radical opposition to infant baptism deciphered from statements of the 3rd and 4th century writers, states that children born of believing parents should necessarily be believers unless the church and their parents have not properly instructed them. Baptism as a significant sign of conversion should thus not apply to children believers. Born unto parents who live by the spirit of truth, the children should necessarily be able to discern the spirit of truth. This kind of thinking, it could be argued, informs Israelite practices of only dedicating their children to the Lord when they are young. There is no mention of a baptism of sorts for the children of Israel.

Many thinkers, e.g. Aland have argued that infant baptism was instituted in the second century. There is no evidence that can allude to the practice having been instituted in the first century. They argue that this practice was introduced in the second century that is why there is much recorded criticism of the same practice in the second and third century. This practice was an exceptional practice that was not universally accepted or practiced. They cite writings of Tertullian, a second & third century theologian; who preferred delay of baptism to augment the argument that infant baptism was not the norm but rather the exception. Of critical interest to opponents of infant baptism is the debate on evidence that would ground whether infant baptism was optional or mandatory in the different centuries, whether it was accepted but not encouraged, or whether it was encouraged and postponement discouraged or even prohibited.

In response to those opposed, the proponents of Infant baptism argue that this is a practice or tradition that existed and was handed down to the Christians of the today by the early church. It is not until the reformation age that people started questioning the basis for the practice. Given this is a practice that was instituted by the early church; there definitely must have been some valid theological or scriptural basis for the same.

Scriptural Basis for Infant Baptism

Investigating through the bible, there are a number of scriptural verses that point to practice of infant baptism. luke18: 15 -16 tells that people were bringing children to Jesus and he himself orders disciples who were blocking children to let the children come to him. In acts 2: 38 -39, peter promises the early converts that the promise is for them and their children. In acts 16:33 and Corinthians 1: 16, it is stated that the apostles were baptizing whole households. Peter and Paul, as given in I Peter 3:21 and Colossians 2: 11-12, argued that the purpose circumcision served among the Israelites as stipulated in the Old Testament is the same purpose baptism serves. Circumcision was the mark of conversion and commitment to God’s provident way. The circumcision of 8 year olds among Israelites is therefore validly equated to the baptism of infants among Christians. It, therefore, appears like Jesus’ disciples themselves instituted the practice of infant baptism. When an individual converted to Christianity, he or she converted with the whole of his or her household. All in the house were baptized as a physical indication of conversion.

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The first controversy recorded over the issue of infant baptism is dated to the debate in the 3rd century. The debate was about whether infant baptism should be done at birth or on the eighth day so as to correlate with the circumcision day in the Israelite tradition. Irenaeus, a father of the church from the second century (140 AD) argued that baptism was a recreation or regeneration of an individual. He held that Jesus came so that all may be regenerated even infants. Irenaeus is believed to have been baptized as an infant by then bishop of Smyma, Polycarp who was a student of the apostle John. On the question of how they are to confess the faith, the father taught that parent are able to speak on behalf of their children.

By mid 3rd century, another theologian in his writings brought a new dimension into the necessity of infant baptism. Origen explains that all people are born soiled and it is through baptism in the church that individuals find remission of sin. He argues that infants deserved to be baptized due the general wickedness that is akin to humanity as explained in the theory of original sin. He asserts that the apostles instituted and accepted the baptism of infants because they also share in the original sin. Through baptism, they are born a new into the salvation work of grace.

In the same period i.e. mid 3rd century, another great teacher Cyprian of Carthage explains the necessity of infant baptism as a cleansing from original sin. The child is thus baptized and does not need to confess anything because he or she is not responsible for the original sin. Those who are baptized in adulthood confess their sins because of misgivings they would have committed in the course of their living. He argues that infant baptism does not have to be on the eighth but rather as soon as it could practically be possible. Baptisms then were done on the second or third day.

First To Fifth Century Teachers on Infant Baptism

In the late 4th century, as seen through the teachings of Gregory of Nazianz, baptism was understood to be an initiation and a seal or rubberstamp. This is the seal that differentiated the born again from the unborn again. He advises that it would not be proper if children died without the seal of sanctification. Through baptism, he believed, an individual is sanctified and consecrated to the spirit. In the same 4th century, another teacher: John Chrysostom broadened the understanding of baptism. Baptism did not just sanctify, it also conferred on an individual certain heavenly graces. He therefore, points out that infants baptized received such heavenly gifts as righteousness and holiness.

A teacher of the 5th century, Augustine elaborates on the idea that infant baptism is not a creation of church councils. It was instated by apostolic authority, something that the church received from the disciples of Jesus themselves. He thus points out that baptism of infants serves as their consecration to the Lord. He argues that baptism is a way of enjoining people to Christ who confers grace on all even the infants. It is not just adults who are in need of such graces but all humanity including infants.

The council of Carthage held in the 5th century reaffirmed the position that by baptism, children are cleansed of original sin. In the act of baptism, if there were no adult to respond on behalf of the infants, the baptism should go on nonetheless. The council of Mileum II asserted authoritatively that children participate of share in the original sin and thus had to be cleansed through the water of baptism. Anyone who held otherwise, the council dictated, had to be excommunicated.

The Practice of Baptism: The Ceremony

The baptism of children or infants just like in our days was done in a specially prepared ceremony. Although there were variations to the ceremony depending on context, the basic tenets remained the same. There was a formal rite or ritual that was performed that has great semblance to what happens in modern churches. Key to an infant baptism was the presence of parents, witnesses and God parents. Officially, any baptism was and is done by a priest or a minister. However, in critical times e.g. in case a child is dying, any baptized believer would do it. In all traditions, water was either poured on the infant or some total immersion of the child in water was done. As the infant is immersed or water poured on its forehead, the minister says prescribed words that are taken from Mathew 28:19. Baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holly Spirit. On the day of the child’s baptism parents and godparents were expected to provide a new white cloth to the child. Such a cloth known as the christening gown served as a physical symbol of newness after rebirth in baptism.

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Infant Baptism in the Present Age

In the present age, the question of infant baptism is approached with a lot of skepticism. The social order of today as opposed to traditional world of the first centuries allows for questioning much of what was otherwise sacred dogma. In the Catholic Church, in 1980, a communication from pope john Paul II was released in response to sustained queries on the importance of infant baptism.

Many parents argue that in the present world are dismayed because their effort to bring up and mould their children into apt Christians is not bearing much fruit. They are disturbed at the fact that children baptized as infants later, persuaded by worldly philosophies and liberalism abandon their faith. Infant baptism is therefore practiced in the churches but does not hold the weight or significance, in the eyes of society, as it used to. Theologians have also shifted in their conception of infant baptism. Unlike in the past when it seemed like an obligatory rite, in the present days it is encouraged but all depends on the desires of the parent. The Catholic Church as of present seems to favor baptisms of people who are ready to make a faith commitment.


From what has been discussed, the relevancy and justification of infant baptism is particularly hinged on the original sin. However, debate on whether the baptismal ritual is what guarantees conferment of spiritual graces is a valid one. It would appear that individuals have to decide for themselves as to whether the baptism of their infants is a necessity or a formality.


Aland, Kurt. Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Philadelphia: West Minster, 1963.

Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the early church: history, theology, and liturgy in the first five centuries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Finn, Thomas M. Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: west and east Syria, Collegeville, Minnesota. Liturgical Press: 1992.

Guy, Laurie. Introducing early Christianity: a topical survey of its life, beliefs, and practices, Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2004.

McKinion, Steven A. Life and Practice in the early church: a documentary reader, New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instruction on Infant Baptism.1980. Web.

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