On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Three: Witness of History

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Three: Witness of History


In the last entry, I covered for opening half millennium of the church regarding its position on the timing of the baptism. My conclusion, having looked at various sources, was that conversion, following catechism, was the normative time for baptism. The ritual and process for both developed considerably over the opening centuries but this was the normative practice of the church. Baptism was encouraged because it was seen as the normative means of salvation but it was something people were prepared for because of the responsibilities attached to such an act regarding one’s own conduct.

Even in the 4th century all surviving accounts of the baptisms of well-known churchmen are showing baptism as something generally undertaken generally between the ages of 18-40. The alternative, we know from funerary monuments, being in proximity to one’s death. This isn’t to say infant baptism didn’t take place but rather it was likely the minority case in the opening centuries. We do see it talked about, however, with increasing insistence, notably in the writings of North African writers like Cyprian and Origen in the 3rd century. We also see someone like Tertullian writing about the practice, during the same period and general region as Origen, despite his doing so disapprovingly. Yet even his disapproval points out the fact that it was taking place. Despite this we see presbyters and bishops in the Church in other regions not being baptised, even centuries later, until adulthood sometimes despite being the children of the clergy themselves.

In the fifth and sixth century, however, we start to see councils arguing that children should be baptised at birth not just as a permitted practice but one which was to be enforced by ecclesial authorities in one region after another. The baptism of newborns was to transition to something that was no longer presumably just permitted but something demanded of every Christian progressively in every region. One historian writing…

Until the sixth century, infants were baptized only when they were in danger of death. About this time the practice was introduced of administering baptism even when they were not ill

Alex Lagarde, Latin Church in the Middle Ages, 37

It is, therefore, on the edge of this transition that I closed my last entry and will begin this latest one. The period in which the baptism of newborns reached and maintains its ascendant status.

This is an incredibly long period so please forgive me if I exercise some brevity on some of the topics covered. I will also, inevitably, focus more of my efforts on Europe and the Latin church rather than the greater church beyond it. This is since Europe is closest to my own culture and I am therefore more familiar with it and whilst there are notable differences in the Eastern church I will endeavour to mention these when relevant.

Pelagius and Augustine

Towards the start of the 5th century a British moralist by the name of Pelagius began preaching against what he perceived as the moral laxity of Roman Christians he encountered during his travels. He singled out the teaching of Augustine of Hippo, his contemporary, regarding his belief in man’s total inability to contribute to his own salvation. Something which Pelagius blamed for the moral laxity of the Christian’s he perceived around him as he traveled around the Mediterranean. By contrast Pelagius argued for the autonomy of the will in being able to follow God. An example of this is reflected perhaps best in his letter to a woman called Demetria…

Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either. For on what grounds are some to be judges, others to be judged, unless it is because the will works in different ways in one and the same nature and because, though all of us are able to do the same, we actually do different things? And so, in order that this essential fact may stand out more clearly, we must cite some examples. Adam is cast out of paradise, Enoch is snatched away from the world; in both the Lord shows freedom of choice at work, for, just as the one who sinned could have pleased the Lord, so the other, who did please him, could have sinned instead. Neither would the former have deserved to be punished nor the latter to be chosen by a just God, unless both had been able to choose either course of action. This is how we are to understand the matter of Cain and Abel and also of Jacob and Esau, the twin brothers, and we have to realize that, when merits differ in the same nature, it is will that is the sole cause of an action.

Pelagius’s Letter to Demetria, Chapter 8

Augustine preached that man was totally unable to contribute anything to his own salvation writing in a letter to a monk named Valentinus…

When, however, the Pelagians say that the only grace which is not given according to our merits is that whereby his sins are forgiven to man, but that that which is given in the end, that is, eternal life, is rendered to our preceding merits: they must not be allowed to go without an answer. If, indeed, they so understand our merits as to acknowledge them, too, to be the gifts of God, then their opinion would not deserve reprobation. But inasmuch as they so preach human merits as to declare that a man has them of his own self, then most rightly the apostle replies: Who makes you to differ from another? And what have you, that you did not receive? Now, if you received it, why do you glory as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7) To a man who holds such views, it is perfect truth to say: It is His own gifts that God crowns, not your merits, — if, at least, your merits are of your own self, not of Him. If, indeed, they are such, they are evil; and God does not crown them; but if they are good, they are God’s gifts, because, as the Apostle James says, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17) In accordance with which John also, the Lord’s forerunner, declares: A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven (John 3:27) – from heaven, of course, because from thence came also the Holy Ghost, when Jesus ascended up on high, led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.

Augustine of Hippo, On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 15

And in his City of God…

When it is said, The male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people, because he has broken my covenant, (Genesis 17:14) some may be troubled how that ought to be understood, since it can be no fault of the infant whose life it is said must perish; nor has the covenant of God been broken by him, but by his parents, who have not taken care to circumcise him. But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know.

City of God, Book 16: Chapter 27

Augustine then clearly articulating, by contrast to Pelagius, that any goodness of man comes from God as an act of grace, not man. Augustine rooted this total depravity of man in the fall as an ontological deficiency. If our goodness, therefore, was only ever by the grace of God the idea of baptising infants became not just a practice that happened but more a matter of necessity. In 418 a church council in Carthage, led by Augustine, ruled…

“If any man says that new-born children need not be baptized, or that they should indeed be baptized for the remission of sins, but that they have in them no original sin inherited from Adam which must be washed away in the bath of regeneration, so that in their ease the formula of baptism ‘for the remission of sins’ must not be taken literally, but figuratively, let him be anathema; because, according to Romans 5:12, the sin of Adam has passed upon all.”

Council of Carthage of 418, Canon 2

Although I haven’t found a reference for it I have also seen argumentation that several years prior Augustine presided over a council in Mela, Numidia that made similar pronouncements. These rulings were deeply rooted in the belief that baptism itself, like everything else, was one of God’s good graces to us that was effectual devoid of the agency of the individual. If the agency of the individual was absent in the regeneration that came through baptism, by Augustine’s rationale, all baptisms were essentially the same as newborn baptisms. Since a child could neither assent or dissent to the act neither could a grown man since the reason they both entered into baptism was via the same means, the grace of God. It was an ontological change devoid of human agency. A man could only condemn himself, only God can save.

The Council of Carthage’s canons were successively upheld by other jurisdictions of the Church and we don’t really hear anything about Pelagius after this date. It is safe to say he lost the argument and has ever since been condemned as a heretic. Moreso, this argumentation came to underscore how the Church, the Latin portion particularly, came to understand baptism and its actions.

Augustine’s argumentation, not without precedent, came to firmly pivot the understanding of baptism for the Church in such a way that will anticipate (or consolidate depending on one’s view) a relatively rapid change in how baptism is conducted. One historian describing the pivot on baptism as…

“It is turned into a passive cleansing from original sin, an exorcism, instead of a personal conversion followed by an ethical journey.”

Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages

This change will leave occurrences like Augustine’s own baptism as an adult, and that of his predecessors, as a fact of history with no justifiable grounds in how the church had after this date come to understand baptism.

I will leave engaging more fully with Augustine’s ideas for the final part of this series. I will instead look at the impact of the ruling of the Council of Carthage of 418 in the centuries and years following the publishing of its canons.

Christening becomes normative in Europe

A century after the council of Carthage (517 AD) we see rulings by a council in Gerona, Spain, making pronouncements that echo the Council of Carthage on the admonishment to baptise newborns. It is worth noting here, as a corollary to the points made regarding Tertullian’s disapproval of infant baptism attesting to its existence, that these ruling suggest that during this period newborn-baptism still wasn’t the universal during this period. The relevant article of the council ruling read…

But concerning little sons lately born, it pleaseth us to appoint, that if, as is usual, they be infirm, and do not suck their mother’s milk, even on the same day in which they are born (if they be offered, if they be brought) they may he baptized.

Council of Gerona of 517, Article 5

The important aspect of baptism during this period increasingly shifted from the disposition of the individual towards an emphasis on the correct execution of the rite. This is a marked change from the earlier Ante-Nicene period which saw great variance in the conduct of baptism across the Christian church. One commentator stating…

The great importance that was attached to the rite led to a belief in the efficacy of the ceremony, if performed correctly. Whereas in early Christian times the convert had played a more active part in baptism due to the ethical character of his or her conversion, baptism now became a rite which was performed on a passive recipient. This was in great part owing to the rule of infant baptism.

Marianne Ritsema van Eck, Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England: an Investigation of the Lexical Field

Historian Peter Cramer also wrote on the baptismal theology of this period…

Indeed, the child, and the small body of the child with its vulnerable nakedness and its suggestions of uncertainties and precariousness, perhaps replaced water as the symbol of baptism.

Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, Chapter 3

Newborn baptism, it is safe to say, is now generally considered normative and I will begin to refer to it from this point onwards as Christening. I say this because in my own culture the words for baptism when Christianity first came to the Anglo-Saxons were words like ‘cristnian’, ‘depan’ and ‘dyppan’ (Christening and Dipping I presume) having no prior words for it (Not counting the presence of Christians in Britain prior to the Gregorian mission).

After the conversion of Anglo-Saxon kings in the 7th century, still relatively early on in the overall conversion of Britain, christening was to be normative. King Ine of Wessex, for example, during this period decreed that all infants should be baptised within 30 days of birth and parents were to be fined 30 shillings if they failed to do so, if their child died before baptism their belongings were entirely forfeited to the crown. These legal penalties, replicated across Europe, influenced the timing of baptism, changing it from something that traditionally happened at Easter to taking place soon as possible following birth.

By the 9th century christening was mandated by the Holy Roman Empire on the mainland, following precedent by this point long established. Alcuin of York, a British clergyman and scholar in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, articulated baptism as part of the struggle between “The Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan” with one later commentator stating…

As a result of the practice of infant baptism, not only the nature (a passively undergone cleansing) but also the form of baptism changed. In ancient times catechumens were educated in the Christian faith for several years, culminating in a final preparation during Lent, during which they were examined in several sessions called scrutinies, before they were deemed worthy of receiving the sacrament of baptism at Easter. During the Middle Ages this protracted period of preparation was eventually condensed into one single rite, to be performed all year round. The emphasis moved from catechesis and ethical conversion to passive purification. A sponsor would now utter the ancient formulas for triple renunciation of the devil and triple professions of faith (speaking for the child); exorcisms in the liturgy gained a stronger foothold. This led to a strong sense dualism: before baptism man is under the devil, afterwards he belongs with God: an internal change of lords.

Marianne Ritsema van Eck, Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England: an Investigation of the Lexical Field quoting Arnold Angenendt, History of religion in the Middle Ages

A excerpt from a homily by Abbott and biblical commentator Ælfric of Eynsham similarly highlights the tone of baptism now firmly established as exorcism by stating…

During the rite of baptism the priest drives out the devil from a child, for each pagan is of the devil, but he can become God’s through baptism

Peter Clemoes, Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series

Which showcases the influence of Augustine’s theology at work in the Saxon people. The idea of a ‘change in lords’ also had very real and earthly emphasis for Kings and Emperors who saw a peoples coming to Christ as a means by which foreigners and hitherto unbaptised peoples might come under their own authority, this no doubt provided an added impetus to see such baptisms conducted. Monarch’s themselves, however, seemed to have a more pragmatic bent when it came to their own family, Arnold Angenendt in his history of the Anglo-Saxons asserted that it was tradition for one son to remain unbaptised in the event that a reversion to paganism became beneficial. The question of who stood as your sponsor at the time of your baptism was also of immense political advantage to yourself, the more prestigious your godparent the better it was for the subject being baptised (and likewise for the godparent). Therefore even if one did not revert to paganism but rather hold out for a more prestigious sponsor for a son it could do well to advance the lot of a family. Alfred the Great, a later king of Wessex, leveraged the political dimensions of baptism to indicate his authority over his former rival Guthrum, Viking invader turned King of the Danelaw, by standing as his godfather. Such an act was a sign of coming alongside one another and consolidated Guthrum’s claim on the territory he had taken. Alfred benefited by being seen as the senior of the two monarchs.

In the background of all this Alcuin of York also gives a whisper of an earlier mindset in a letter to Charlemagne who was likewise demanding the mass baptism of his subjects…

“The washing of sacred baptism profits nothing in body, if knowledge of the catholic Faith does not precede in the mind of one having to use reason”

From Susan Keefe, Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire

This wasn’t a statement against christening, or mass compulsory baptism, but rather an admonishment to ensure the rite was properly understood by both the clergy and the families of those being baptised, even at a perfunctory level to be effectual. Alcuin, and those like him, likely served as the prompt that caused Charlemagne to subsequently send letters to his bishops seeking the education of lower members of the clergy. To ensure that they would at least have a working knowledge of the rites they were undertaking. The unspoken implication being that a great many were being baptised without any genuine knowledge of what was involved, by either the baptiser, the subject, and their sponsors, prior to these reforms.

What we inevitably see now with the normalisation of christening as the primary basis of baptism was the decline in anything resembling a catechetical process. What goes unspoken when we hear of the conversion of an entire people to follow their King is the absence of understanding about anything regarding the traditional baptismal process which would have existed for recipients. In a letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the then Bishop of Alexandria he wrote…

Moreover, at the solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity which occurred in this first indiction, more than ten thousand Angli are reported to have been baptized by the same our brother and fellow bishop. This have I told you, that you may know what you are effecting among the people of Alexandria by speaking, and what in the ends of the world by praying. For your prayers are in the place where you are not, while your holy operations are shown in the place where you are.

Gregory the Great, Registrum Epistolarum, Book VIII, Letter 30

The missionary team sent by Gregory the Great, however, was not so numerous that it could of adequately prepared each recipient with the formation that went in advance of baptism in prior centuries of the Church. A problem of scale is a good problem to have but it is indicative of a fundamental shift in how the Church approached baptism, in the words of an aforementioned commentator, as one of passive purification and no longer an ‘ethical journey’. The tail of christening had come to wag the dog of baptism, an understanding was therefore useful but only the most perfunctory of knowledge was required.

Chrismation is separated from Baptism and becomes Confirmation

One of the other changes during this period was the gradual separation of the anointing of oil and laying on of hands by a bishop that had previously accompanied baptism. With the widespread adoption of infant baptism and the changing of timings from Easter or Advent to moments of birth this meant it was harder for a bishop, who had previously presided to be present at such an event. Especially given the increased role they now played in secular affairs. The East and the West had two distinct responses to this. The East delegated this responsibility to priests, preserving the Rite, wherein the West separated the anointing and laying on of hands from baptism, preserving the role of the bishop. If we look at how the early church understood the role of this practice it raises some interesting questions. I’ll quote from a number of sources to give a summary of the views available…

The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God.

Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 8. Christianity, by Its Provision for the Flesh, Has Put on It the Greatest Honour. The Privileges of Our Religion in Closest Connection with Our Flesh. Which Also Bears a Large Share in the Duties and Sacrifices of Religion.

Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. The bishop will then lay his hand upon them, invoking, saying, “Lord God, you who have made these worthy of the removal of sins through the bath of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit, grant to them your grace, that they might serve you according to your will, for to you is the glory, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, now and throughout the ages of the ages. Amen.” After this he pours the oil into his hand, and laying his hand on each of their heads, says, “I anoint you with holy oil in God the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.” Then, after sealing each of them on the forehead, he shall give them the kiss of peace and say, “The Lord be with you.” And the one who has been baptized shall say, “And with your spirit.” So shall he do to each one.

The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, Chapter 21

Having been counted worthy of this Holy Chrism, you are called Christians, verifying the name also by your new birth. For before you were deemed worthy of this grace, you had properly no right to this title, but were advancing on your way towards being Christians.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 21: On Chrism. Chapter 5

The role of chrismation, when we first start seeing it described, was historically seen as part of an integral second step out of three in the process of becoming a Christian. Baptism was followed by chrismation which was followed by communion. In the writing of Cyril, we see indicators suggesting that the chrismation carried the forgiveness of sins but also the bestowing of the holy spirit. He also linked the bestowing of the Holy Spirit coming out of the water with its immediate resting upon Christ following his own baptism. It would be hard to imagine how one might justify to Cyril et al how one might have been properly considered a Christian if one had purposefully begun to separate the steps that had been accepted as normative for baptism. Particularly in later centuries where the conduct of the rite came under increasing scrutiny. The separation of chrismation, in the west later known as confirmation, from baptism is an important indicator of the shift in baptismal practice as christening became normative. This was an innovation, not an unchanging practice of the ancient church.

The idea of baptism as a sacrament is something held by nearly all Christians today, but the idea of confirmation, or chrismation, as a sacrament, for those who adhere to it, is in part because it was drawn out of the baptismal ceremony itself into its own rite. If baptism was a sacrament did a part of the ceremony, divorced from its original context, not count as a sacrament in its own right? The theologians of the Middle Ages rejected such a view unequivocally. They still maintained that communion could not be taken without confirmation, the final step towards initiation into the Church. This lead to the Western divergence with the East which maintained the unity of the baptismal rite and continued in allowing communion from the moment of baptism.

The English church of the 13th century was notable in preferring an early confirmation, although the fragmentation of this practice from baptism was a notable cause for consternation in Europe at the time due to the limited availability of Bishops. Anglican clergyman and historian F.J Taylor wrote…

A synod held at Exeter in 1287 ordered that children were to be confirmed before they were three years old and parents who neglected this rule were to fast every Friday on bread and water until their children were confirmed. Apparently children were to be brought to the bishop at the first opportunity given by his presence in the neighbourhood. This is the probable explanation of the rule that children were to be confirmed within three years since the bishop was expected to make a visitation of his diocese once in every three years.

On the continent about the same time, a Synod of Cologne (1280) directed priests to admonish parents to bring any children yet unconfirmed to the bishop at the age of seven years and upwards. The manner of administration was often perfunctory and even scandalous, crowds surrounding the bishop who would sometimes confirm from horseback.

The great emphasis on the Eucharist and the obstacles in the way of the regular administration of confirmation led to the obvious result of widespread neglect of the rite. Despite the fact that it had been officially ranked as one of the seven sacraments in the Sentences of Peter Lombard in the middle of the twelfth century, ecclesiastical authority was obliged in practice to admit that it was not a necessary preliminary to communion. Consequently the laity did not value it very highly and in 1281 Archbishop Peckham in his Lambeth Constitutions sought to remedy the abuse. ” Many neglect the Sacrament of Confirmation for want of watchful advisers; so that there are many, innumerable many, who want the grace of Confirmation, though grown old in evil days. To cure this damnable neglect, we ordain that none be admitted to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood that is not confirmed, except at the point of death, unless he have a reasonable impediment “. This regulation passed into the Sarum Manual and thence into our Prayer Book as the rubric printed at the end of the Confirmation service ‘and there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’

F.J Taylor, The History of Confirmation p 74

For those arguing for the apostolicity of the practice of christening, the changes in the administration of confirmation serve as a useful landmark on the road off progressive divergence from the apostolic consensus over the centuries on the topic of both baptism and communion.

Scholasticism and Sacraments: Sign or Sacred thing?

It was also around this period (13th century) that there was increased debate regarding the nature of the sacraments generally in the West. This expressed itself most forcefully regarding debates around the means by which communion could be understood as the true body and blood of Christ but it also impacted on discussions pertaining to baptism.

One well known debate was between Lanfranc of Bec and Berengar of Tours who argued that communion was to understood as either transubstantiation or a spiritual view, echoing earlier Medieval writers like Ratramnus of Corbie, respectively. Their views on communion were likewise reflected in baptism. Lanfranc argued that the act itself was the administration of salvation independent of the individual concerned. Berengar arguing for the act as a physical expression of a spiritual reality that happened internally and dependant on the disposition of the individual concerned.

The fact that such topics were even debated was indicative that Augustine’s claim that unbaptised infants were eternally damned found notable contention even at this time. The debate itself brought up the themes of unbaptised martyrs, children and those taken by disease before baptism. Existing concepts like the baptism of blood and desire also raised the notion that the sacramental grace bestowed by baptism could somehow operate independently of the act of baptism itself.

The political and ecclesial mainline, however, was firmly with Lanfranc. Berengar in his defeat, whilst not excommunicated, was forced to live out his life in ascetical exile after recanting a confession of assent to transubstantiation and faced with a future living in fear of his life.

As transubstantiation formally came into ascendancy it became the primary means by which union with Christ was experienced by the church. This articulation had once been more prominently the domain of baptism and the abandonment of a former way of life but given its ubiquitous status within christendom now framed as a passive cleansing it had ceased to be meaningful in the same way by contrast to the more immediate and repeated reception of communion.

The Magisterial Reformation

The next major shift on baptism was to occur during the Reformation. With consideration to its timing, however, nothing much changed with the Magisterial Reformers. All the Magisterial Reformers were committed to the Christening of newborns. What did change with the advent of the Reformation was the reasons given for baptism. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer all upheld the fundamental Augustinian claim that we contributed nothing to our salvation yet they were each keen to carve out space for the role of faith, in their own way, in the process of baptism. Something which had progressively diminished, if not arguably disappeared, in successive centuries. Part of this was the opening up of the idea that even if one might be a formal member of the church, one might not have been saved without faith in some kind of active capacity. Although by a contemporary plain understanding this was heavily nuanced.

In many ways, baptism was one practice that the Magisterial Reformers didn’t see the need to reform. Rather it was the explanation for baptism that needed reform. One commentator, writing on the Baptismal theology of Ulrich Zwingli in particular wrote…

Zwingli altered the theology to agree with the reformation principle of salvation by faith alone, but to the laity, nothing had changed. The method and the candidate was not changed, therefore there was no strong opposition against Zwingli’s new understanding.

Kurt Thompson, The Proper Candidate: An examination of the 1525 debate between Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier concerning baptism. P 42

Whilst Zwingli’s understanding of faith alone, and the relationship between faith and baptism differed from other Magisterial Reformers this seems a fairly representative take on their approach to baptism. It was their other beliefs, not their maintenance of christening, that caused such consternation during the Reformation. Below I will post a sample of notable voices on the subject of baptism from the Magisterial Reformation in their own words.

Martin Luther and the Lutheran church

Martin Luther articulated a view that baptism, the joining of the Word and Water in the context of the church community, as an act had the ability to create faith in infants. Just as the preaching and hearing of the Word had the ability to create faith in man. He even went as far to say that the best form of baptism was the baptism of infants, because an adult might by use of his own reason ruin his faith or resist God’s work in his life. In this sense Luther argued that man was saved entirely by God, but might ruin himself. This was a different understanding to what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching but could still be considered what is understood as baptismal regeneration.


Perhaps someone will oppose what I have said by pointing to the baptism of infants. ‘Infants do not understand God’s promise and cannot have baptismal faith. So either faith is not necessary or else infant baptism is useless.’ Here I say what everyone says: the faith of others, namely, the faith of those who bring them to baptism aids infants. For the word of God is powerful, when it is uttered. It can change even a godless heart, which is no less unresponsive and helpless than any infant. Even so the infant is changed, cleansed and renewed by faith poured into it, through the prayer of the Church that presents it for baptism and believes….Nor should I doubt that even a godless adult might be changed, in any of the sacraments, if the same Church prayed and presented him. We read in the Gospel of the paralytic, who was healed through the faith of others. I should be ready to admit that in this sense the sacraments of the New Law confer grace effectively, not only to those who do not resist, but even to those who do resist it very obstinately….The question remains, whether it is proper to baptize an infant not yet born, with only a hand or a foot outside the womb. Here I will decide nothing hastily, and confess my ignorance. I am not sure whether the reason given by some is sufficient-that the soul resides in its entirety in every part of the body. After all, it is not the soul but the body that is externally baptized with water. Nor do I share the view of others, that he who is not yet born cannot be born again, even though it [the argument] has considerable force.

Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 3:33, 34

And in this respect it may well be said that man is not a stone or block. For a stone or block does not resist the person who moves it, nor does it understand and is sensible of what is being done with it, as man with his will so long resists God the Lord until he is [has been] converted. And it is nevertheless true that man before his conversion is still a rational creature, having an understanding and will, however, not an understanding with respect to divine things, or a will to will something good and salutary. Yet he can do nothing whatever towards his conversion (as has also been said [frequently] above), and is in this respect much worse than a stone and block; for he resists the Word and will of God, until God awakens him from the death of sin, enlightens and renews him.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord: Free Will, or Human Powers, 59

As we can see with Luther’s comments entertaining the baptism of those not yet even fully born he maintained the view that baptism as soon as possible was best. Baptism still cleansed, but it did so in part because of its ability to create faith.

Continental Reformed Churches

The Reformed Churches varied in some practices, Calvin and Zwingli notably differed on the nature of the bread and wine in communion but were consistent in their doctrine of baptism. The Reformed Churches framed baptism as the circumcision which was required for God’s people in the New Covenant.

Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformed Churches

Zwingli articulated a theology that was to be developed extensively by John Calvin in later years. This included linking of baptism to Hebrew circumcision. However, in 1525 encountered individuals in his church who had stated they preferred to bring their children forward for baptism when the child desired it for themselves. This was a view Zwingli himself had briefly held in 1523. This event and the ensuing debates lead to the majority of Zwingli’s theology of christening that makes its way down to us today.

They fail to notice that baptism is not given to any one unless he first confesses that he has faith, if he is a grown person, or unless he has the promise in virtue of which he is counted a member of the Church, if he is a child. Thus this thing which the sacramentarians maintain is conveyed invisibly by the sacrament was actually conveyed before. For he who confesses faith had it before he confessed it and, therefore, before he was baptized. For confession precedes immersion. Thus the faith which was given by the light and gift of the Spirit was there before the candidate was admitted to the sacrament, or if he did not have faith, it is certainly not brought to him by baptism. For neither Judas nor Simon the sorcerer, who were without faith when they were baptized, received faith by baptism. But if an infant is to be baptized, since he cannot himself confess faith, he must have the promise which counts him within the Church. The promise is, that the Gentiles, when they have obtained the knowledge of God, and true religion, shall be just as much of the church and people of God as the Hebrews. This all the prophets heralded and Christ Himself most plainly promises. “They shall come from the east and from the west, and shall recline with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” And “The last shall be first,” and “The vineyard shall be given to other husbandmen,” and “There shall be one shepherd and one fold.”

Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, 2.194–95.

In this matter of baptism — if I may be pardoned for saying it — I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles. . . . All the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.

Huldreich Zwingli, “On Baptism,” From Zwingli and Bullinger

I include the last quotation because it’s a reference to antiquity in which he actually goes so far that whilst aware of the teachings of the early church he disputes with them. That whilst openly maintaining the practice of christening he explicitly contended with the traditional understanding of what occurred during the practice itself.

One commentator said of Zwingli’s baptismal theology…

In Zwingli’s theology, the clergy no longer controlled the grace bestowed upon the believer. The understanding of the sacraments was wrong, but the practice of them was acceptable. According to Zwingli, grace comes not from the priest, but from God.

Kurt Thompson, The Proper Candidate: An examination of the 1525 debate between Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier concerning baptism. p 35

John Calvin and the Presbyterian Church

John Calvin linked the Old Testament practice of circumcision to the New Testament practice of baptism. That just as the Hebrew people were included in the circumcision, Christian people were included in baptism. That just as Hebrew children were received into the old covenant, Christian children were baptised into the new covenant. This differed from Luther’s view because, according to Calvin, the newborn participated in the faith of their family or sponsor as they entered into the covenant rather than possessing saving faith emergent purely from the word and water itself. A key difference then is that for Luther any newborn could be brought to faith by baptism, for Calvin this only extended to the children of believers.

In this sense is to be understood the statement of Paul, that “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” (Eph 5:25, 26); and again, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). Peter also says that “baptism also doth now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). For he did not mean to intimate that our ablution and salvation are perfected by water, or that water possesses in itself the virtue of purifying, regenerating, and renewing; nor does he mean that it is the cause of salvation, but only that the knowledge and certainty of such gifts are perceived in this sacrament. This the words themselves evidently show. For Paul connects together the word of life and baptism of water, as if he had said, ‘by the gospel the message of our ablution and sanctification is announced; by baptism this message is sealed.’ And Peter immediately subjoins, that that baptism is ‘not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, which is of faith.’ Nay, the only purification which baptism promises is by means of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, who is figured by water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing.”  

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 4:15:1,2

Scripture gives us a still clearer knowledge of the truth. For it is most evident that the covenant, which the Lord once made with Abraham, is not less applicable to Christians now than it was anciently to the Jewish people, and therefore that word has no less reference to Christians than to Jews. Unless, indeed, we imagine that Christ, by his advent, diminished, or curtailed the grace of the Father—an idea not free from execrable blasphemy. Wherefore, both the children of the Jews, because, when made heirs of that covenant, they were separated from the heathen, were called a holy seed, and for the same reason the children of Christians, or those who have only one believing parent, are called holy, and, by the testimony of the apostle, differ from the impure seed of idolaters. Then, since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children? Let it not be objected, that the only symbol by which the Lord ordered his covenant to be confirmed was that of circumcision, which was long ago abrogated. It is easy to answer, that, in accordance with the form of the old dispensation, he appointed circumcision to confirm his covenant, but that it being abrogated, the same reason for confirmation still continues, a reason which we have in common with the Jews. Hence it is always necessary carefully to consider what is common to both, and wherein they differed from us. The covenant is common, and the reason for confirming it is common. The mode of confirming it is so far different, that they had circumcision, instead of which we now have baptism. Otherwise, if the testimony by which the Jews were assured of the salvation of their seed is taken from us, the consequence will be, that, by the advent of Christ, the grace of God, which was formerly given to the Jews, is more obscure and less perfectly attested to us. If this cannot be said without extreme insult to Christ, by whom the infinite goodness of the Father has been more brightly and benignly than ever shed upon the earth, and declared to men, it must be confessed that it cannot be more confined, and less clearly manifested, than under the obscure shadows of the law.

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 4:16:6

Infant baptism is not a recent introduction, nor are its origins traceable to the papal church. For I say that it has always been a holy ordinance observed in the Christian church. There is no doctor, however ancient, who does not attest that it has always been observed since the time of the apostles.

I wanted to touch on this point in passing for the sole reason of informing the simple that it is an impudent slander for these fanatics to make others believe that this ancient practice is a recently forged superstition and to feign that it derives from the pope. For the whole ancient church held to infant baptism long before one ever knew about the papacy or had ever heard of the pope.

Besides, I do not ask antiquity to legitimate anything for us unless it is founded on the Word of God. I know that it is not human custom that gives authority to the sacrament, nor does its efficacy depend on how men regulate it. Let us come, therefore, to the true rule of God, of which we have spoken, that is to say, his Word, which alone ought to hold here.

Their view is that one ought to administer baptism only to those who request it, to those who have made a profession of faith and repented. And thus infant baptism is the invention of man, opposed to the word of God.

In order to prove this they cite the passage from Saint Matthew’s last chapter, where Jesus Christ says to his apostles,”Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” To which they add this sentence from the 16th chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” That to them seems an invincible foundation.

We see that our Lord acted the same way toward Abraham with regard to circumcision. For before he conferred this sign on him he received him into his covenant and instructed him in his Word.

But we must now note that when a man is received of God into the fellowship of the faithful, the promise of salvation which is given to him is not for him alone but also for his children. For it is said to him: “I am thy God, and the God of thy children after thee.” Therefore the man who has not been received into the covenant of God from his childhood is as a stranger to the church until such time as he is led into faith and repentance by the doctrine of salvation. But at the same time his posterity is also made a part of the family of the church. And for this reason infants of believers are baptized by virtue of this covenant, made with their fathers in their name and to their benefit. Herein, thus, lies the mistake of the poor Anabaptists. For since this doctrine must precede the sacrament, we do not resist it.

John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines

It is interesting to note that Calvin, amongst other things, leans in on the authority and precedent of the early church, which we have examined ourselves. Yet the early church in their discussion of baptism more clearly articulated baptism and salvation with reference to the regenerative powers of the water itself. One might argue that Calvin perceived the early church doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or that he genuinely believed he saw precursor’s of his own theology in the writings of the fathers that had hitherto been neglected by the Roman Catholic Church. However, Church historian David Wright on this exact topic contends…

It is indeed misleading to view the age of the Fathers simply as an era of infant baptism. In fact, of known named individuals in those centuries who were both of Christian parentage and baptized at known dates, the great majority were baptised on profession of faith. The obscuring of a truer picture derives ultimately from sixteenth century apologetic, both Catholic and Protestant, against the Anabaptists.

David Wright, What has infant baptism done to baptism? P6

In light of which Calvin’s assertions, and those like it from this period, to the antiquity of his beliefs pertaining to the practice seem to be cast into the shade. Especially when we see such comments in texts deliberately attacking Anabaptist claims as Wright outlines.

Thomas Cranmer and The Church of England

The Church of England was Reformed like Calvin and Zwingli but differed in its nature of maintaining the historic episcopal offices of the church. Early on its debatably whether the Church of England (CoE) had a more Lutheran view of the sacraments but later on we see the clear influence of Continental Reformed thought. As a result the covenantal language that we see in Calvin regarding baptism is carried over into the English church. I’ve posted a sample below from Cranmer’s own writings to shed light on this…

Finally, their cruel ungodliness extends to baptism, which they do not want to be administered to infants, though for no reason whatsoever. For the children of Christians do not belong any less to God and the church than the children of the Hebrews once did, and since circumcision was given to them in infancy so also baptism ought to be imparted to our children, since they are participants in the same divine promise and covenant, and have been accepted by Christ with the greatest human kindness.

Thomas Cranmer, The Reformation of Church Law, 18

Likewise, there are many errors which are piled up by others in baptism, which some are so impressed by that they think the Holy Spirit emerges from the mere external element itself, as well as all the force and power by which we are re-created, and that grace and the other gifts which come from it swim in the very fonts of baptism.


In sum, they want our entire regeneration to be owed to that sacred well, which rushes into our senses. But the salvation of souls, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the blessing of adoption, come from the divine mercy flowing to us through Christ, as well as from the promise which appears in the Holy Scriptures.

Thomas Cranmer, The Reformation of Church Law, 25,26

Some debate whether the Church of England really was Reformed when it broke from Rome and whilst this isn’t the point of my writing let me just say that in my view it most assuredly was and at its best still is.

In the above, it seems clear that Thomas Cranmer at least shared Calvin’s view and theology on christening. One other thing to note is that the earliest editions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552) actually contained no baptismal rite for those who weren’t infants. This was a notable turnaround from the early church liturgies we have available. In the later preface to the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer we read…

It was thought convenient, that some Prayers and Thanksgivings, fitted to special occasions, should be added in their due places; particularly for those concerning the Service of the church at Sea, together with an Office for the Baptism of such as are of Riper Years: which, although not so necessary when the former Book was compiled, yet by the growth of Anabaptism, through the licentiousness is of the late times crept in amongst us, is now become necessary, and may be always useful for the baptizing of Natives in our Plantations, and others converted to the Faith.

Excerpt from the Preface of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Indicating that it was only due to the influence of Anabaptism at home and England’s growing colonies abroad that the need for a rite of baptism had now become useful. Presumably at the time of writing it’s earliest editions the idea of baptising adults simply wasn’t even something that had been considered.

Sidenote on the prayerbook and its predecessors

The original 1549 prayer book actually also gives us a window on that transition that the normalisation of christening brought about in the Latin church and its further change in the Reformed churches. This window lies in the baptismal ceremony for infants which retained the reading (Jesus blessing the little children) and prayers for the recipient of baptism at the front-door of the church. This practice actually has its roots in the more elaborate Medieval rites of the English Church located in the Sarum Manual of the 11th century. The difference is that Cranmer retained a form of this practice whilst detaching any reference to the act they were originally attached to in the manual. The section in question from the manual was one called “Making a Catechumen”. The Reformer Martin Bucer, a key influence on the development of the prayer book, in his appraisal of the 1549 edition, was critical of maintaining such a practice at the front door, rightly seeing no point to it in it in its current context. We subsequently see in the 1552 edition that Cranmer had moved that portion of the service from the front door of the church to the font inside the of it.

Catechumens being interrogated at the exterior of the Church actually has its roots in the ancient church. However, what we see in the Sarum Manual entitled “Making a Catechumen” was actually closer to a blessing or exorcism. Apparently, it contained 5 signs of the cross, an actual exorcism, the giving of salt that had been exorcised itself, recitals of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed and a ritual anointing imitating Jesus’s healing the deaf and mute man in Mark 7. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer only jettisons the Hail Mary and use of salt in the exorcism whilst encouraging the baptism of the child on the closest subsequent Sunday to its birth. The other notable element is the practice of making the godparents and sponsors speak for the child’s own confession of belief in the first person. A practice which actually endures in the baptismal liturgy for infants in the Church of England today. This is a paired down form of the confession of belief, done by the sponsors on part of the subject. We first see this in texts older than the Sarum Manual. Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Maxwell Johnson, writing in the New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Scrutinies, Baptism) detailed these as being the Galesian Sacramentary and the Ordo Romanus XI of the 7th and 8th century respectively. In each case these are actually derived from the practice of scrutinies we see in even earlier baptismal liturgies predicated on the belief that the recipient themselves would respond in the affirmative rather than their sponsor. The transition to the sponsor responding in the first person on behalf of the child is a telling indicator of the less than subtle transition that took place whilst attempting to maintain the structure of the ancient rites. We actually have examples of these older practices available to us today…

First ye entered into the vestibule of the Baptistery, and there facing towards the West ye listened to the command to stretch forth your hand, and as in the presence of Satan ye renounced him.

Then you were told to say, I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance.  Of which things we spoke to you at length in the former Lectures, as God’s grace allowed us.

And these things were done in the outer chamber. But if God will, when in the succeeding lectures on the Mysteries we have entered into the Holy of Holies , we shall there know the symbolic meaning of the things which are there performed. Now to God the Father, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be glory, and power, and majesty, forever and ever. Amen.

Cyril of Jerusalem, First Lecture on the Mysteries. 2, 19, 20

When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work.. If those who bring them forward bear witness for them that they have done so, then let them hear the Gospel. From the time at which they are set apart, place hands upon them daily so that they are exorcised. When the day approaches on which they are to be baptized, let the bishop exorcise each one of them, so that he will be certain whether each has been purified.  If there are any who are not purified, they shall be set apart. They have not heard the Word in faith, for the foreign spirit remained with each of them.

Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Traditions 20:1-4

These practices were done by catechumens after periods of fasting and listening to expositions of the faith by clergy, exorcisms were conducted to ensure the prior steps had been effectual. Over time these rites were formalised in the aforementioned texts of the later 7th and 8th centuries where catechism itself was compacted down so much such that newborns were now described as catechumens (maintained in the later Sarum Manual) and leaning heavily on the passage Matthew 19:14 which had previously not appeared in any prior baptismal liturgy or in the formal act of the scrutinies themselves used by the early church fathers. From the 7th and 8th centuries, scrutinies were by already by this point far from their original investigative role. By the time of the Reformation, we see these rites divorced from all context relating to catechism, instead of forming part of the more general baptismal rite practised at the font itself. Catechism was already long by this point functionally a ‘nice to have’ rather than normative practice but these liturgical changes removed it formally even from the liturgy. If it occurred at all it was now decontextualized from any rite.

One of the accusations levelled at the Anabaptists by the Reformers was the impossibility to discern genuine faith in the life of those wishing to be baptised. Such a statement, when one looks at the baptismal practices of the early church seems incredibly out of touch with the attempts of the early church fathers to do precisely that. Moreso, that the Fathers displayed an awareness that not everyone baptised would be saved (Simon Magus was a popular example). Yet that did not lead to the dispersion of the Scrutinies. Rather the process of catechism was instead progressively transformed over the centuries, as theologies changed, such that commentators a millennium later could not fathom such an attempt even being made in sincerity. It wasn’t that it was impossible to gauge the sincerity of one’s faith, it was that the Christians had even stopped attempting to by this period, in relation to baptism, and it was reflected in the theology.


All Magisterial Reformers, for all their issues with the Roman Catholic Church, were still Latin Christians of a sort. In this, they followed similar baptismal practice, even if they articulated different reasons or processes for it. Of the processes involved the two dominant ones were encapsulated by the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches. The Lutheran Church saw baptism itself, the Word and the Water together as able to create faith in the recipient. The Reformed Churches saw baptism as a circumcision by means of which an infant enters into the New Covenant by the faith of their parents which in time gives birth to their own.

All Magisterial Reformers maintained the separation of confirmation from baptism, although they downgraded it from a sacrament to a rite. Important but not as much as baptism itself. The Roman Catholic Church historically had separated confirmation (chrismation) from baptism in order for it to be administered by a bishop but the Reformers now rearticulated it as the opportunity for a child, now fully grown, to make a public profession of faith which they received in infancy. It wasn’t technically part of the baptism, as understood by the early church fathers or eastern churches, but it was related in that baptism was always required first.

The Reformers consistency of practice carried over from the Roman Catholic tradition is also further exemplified by their joint rejection and persecution of the Anabaptists, the Radical element of the Reformation.

The Radical Reformation

The Anabaptists was a title for a group of movements that emerged in the Reformation noted for their radical views on a range of topics. The most notable and disturbing to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Magisterial Reformers was that of believers baptism. Mirroring debates nearly a millennium before concerning the baptism of other Christians they believed that a baptism conducted wrongly, in this case without an active faith and desire to be baptised, was no baptism. Just as figures like Cyprian disputed that his baptism of heretics wasn’t rebaptism, the Anabaptists disputed that their baptism of the christened wasn’t rebaptism. Balthasar Hubmaier in his apologia for his views wrote…

“I have never taught Anabaptism. I know of none, except that in Acts 19. But the right baptism of Christ, which is preceded by teaching and oral confession of faith, I teach, and say that infant baptism is a robbery of the right baptism of Christ, and a misuse of the high name of God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, altogether opposed to the institution of Christ and to the customs of the apostles”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Short Apology

And whilst debating Zwingli, who didn’t believe that John’s followers hadn’t been subsequently baptised by the Apostles wrote…

[A]ll those who believe this forgiveness [through John’s baptism of repentance] should be rebaptized by the apostles of Christ. That is a real rebaptism, because the baptism of John is, and is called baptism, and the baptism of Christ is also a baptism. Therefore it is correctly called rebaptism. The bath of the infants which we have hitherto taken for baptism is not baptism, nor is it worthy of the name baptism. Therefore it is wrongly said that we let ourselves be rebaptized.

Balthasar Hubmaier, The Christian Baptism of Believers

There is actually some evidence that Balthasar was actually aware of the baptismal debates of the early church and was knowingly employing the same approach of that fathers like Cyprian had employed to defend themselves against claims of rebaptism. Yet the title stuck, partly due to their marginalised status in Europe. Anabaptists represented the first real break from the union of ecclesial and secular authority that had subsequently come to be united in both Catholic and Protestant Europe since the early middle ages.

The Anabaptist movement was undoubtedly a reactionary one in its theology. Rooted in a rejection of the arguably perfunctory nature of the sacraments and religion of Europe during this period. The relationship between faith and the sacraments lay at the core of their beliefs in that they believed that one must come to saving faith before baptism. That a baptism without prior faith was no baptism at all. In their theology, the Magisterial Reformers thought they went too far, for the Radical Reformers their critics did not go far enough.

The articulation of Anabaptist beliefs came to seen as a capital offence nearly everywhere it was found which resulted in death by beheading, burning at the stake or (as a cruel irony) drowning. Perhaps the most infamous account of an Anabaptist martyrdom is that of Dirk Willems…

In the year 1569 a pious, faithful brother and follower of Jesus Christ, named Dirk Willems, was apprehended at Asperen, in Holland … concerning his apprehension, it is stated by trustworthy persons, that when he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thief catcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

The Martyrs Mirror of the Defenceless Christians

This had been the penalty for rebaptism for centuries by this period yet it was always a crime rejected by those accused.

The Anabaptists were made up of a great many groups, but there were several notable theologians and leaders of the movement. Rather than detailing all of them I will focus on the writings of Balthasar Hubmaier as he is an example of a Reformer who actively debated another Reformer we have mentioned on the topic of baptism, Zwingli. This will give an insight into Anabaptist and Reformed views on baptism.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Hubmaier, like many other Reformers, was a former Catholic priest who upon reading the works of Martin Luther in 1522 became convinced of a radical view of sola scriptura and led to him interacting with other Reformers like Zwingli. He and Zwingli started off as friends but soon became theological opponents due to Hubmaier’s rejection of and ceasing in the practice of paedobaptism.

“Read the history of the apostles and you will find that the Samaritans believed Philip and afterwards were baptised. So also Simon and the chamberlain of Queen Candace believed and afterwards were baptised. Paul believed and afterwards was baptised. Cornelius and his household believed, received the Holy Spirit and afterwards were baptised with water. Lydia, the seller of purple, and the jailor, believed and were baptised. Who would or can think that all these would have been baptised, if the order and earnest command of Christ had not moved and constrained them to it? Truly, they might indeed have said, ‘We have believed the word of God, and we have in part received the Holy Spirit: what need have we of baptism? Faith saves.’ Nay, not so, but he who believes is baptised and does not dispute, for he sees the order of Christ before his eyes and performs it, where water and a baptiser may be had; but when the two cannot be had, there faith is enough. Take an example. Had the chamberlain, sitting beside Philip and believing, died straightway before they came to the brook, he were no less saved before the baptism than afterwards. This is the meaning of Christ when he says, ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, but he that believes not is condemned’; for no doubt many thousands have been saved who have not been baptised, for they could not obtain it. But as the chamberlain had both the baptiser and the water together, he was bound by the command of Christ to be baptised. Had he not done it, Christ would have held him as a despiser and transgressor of his words, and as such he would have been punished.”

“Water baptism was given for the forgiveness of sins. Acts ii., 38; 1 Pet. iii., 21. It is all contained in the ninth and tenth articles of Christian belief, where we confess a universal Christian Church, a communion of saints and forgiveness of sins, which was the understanding and conclusion set forth by the Nicene Council, with these words, ‘I confess one only baptism to the remission of sins.’ Therefore, as much as one is concerned about communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yea, also about communion with the heavenly host and with the whole Christian Church, also about the forgiveness of his sins, so much should he be concerned about water baptism, by which he enters and is incorporated in the universal Christian Church, out of which there is no salvation. Not that the remission of sins is to be ascribed to the water, but to the power of the keys which Christ by his word has given to his Spouse and unspotted bride, the Christian Church, in his bodily absence, and hung at her side when he said to her, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins ye loose they are loosed, and whose sins ye retain they are retained.’ John XX., 22, 23. Just so Christ speaks in another place to the Church, ‘Verily I say to you, Whatsoever ye bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Matt, xviii., 18. Here one sees plainly that the universal Church has the same power to loose or to bind sins now on earth which Christ himself as a man aforetime bodily here on earth had. He who believes the word of God enters the ark of Noah, which is a true figure of baptism, that out of this ark he be not drowned in the flood of sin.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Ground and Reason

“Where baptism in water does not exist, there is no Church, no brother, no sister, no fraternal discipline, exclusion [they practiced shunning or the ban as a form of church discipline], or restoration.”

Balthasar Hubmaier quoted in William Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism

Hubmaier, like all Anabaptists, argued strongly that no explicit reference exists in scripture to the baptism of infants but that an individual’s faith preceded it each time. He saw it explicitly in terms of faith and obedience, rejecting the idea that the water of baptism itself actually brought about an ontological change in an individual. This is why he insisted the baptism itself must have been done in the name of the Trinity, in relation to Matthew 28:19,29 he stated…

Nowhere else in the Old or New Testaments can we find such high words put together in such an explicit and clear way. From this we realize once again the seriousness with which Christ wills that those who have been instructed in faith should be baptized. For a serious command demands serious obedience and fulfillment

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p122

He even went to say that baptism itself was not necessary but pure faith alone rejecting the idea of baptismal regeneration as historically understood…

“Salvation is bound neither to baptism nor to works of mercy. Being unbaptized does not condemn us, nor do evil works, but only unfaith.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Dialogue with Zwingli’s Baptism Book p191

And yet that the true believer had no excuse to put off baptism if they were truly possessing faith in Jesus Christ…

“If he had been a true believer, then he would have taken the sign of Christ-believing onto himself.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Dialogue with Zwingli’s Baptism Book, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p191

So Hubmaier did link baptism with salvation but made a point of emphasising an individual’s faith was the ‘active ingredient’ of a baptism, not the rite itself.

Indeed they [unbaptized believers] also could have said, ‘Yes, we do believe, yes, some of us have also already received the Holy Spirit. What need do we have of baptism? Faith saves us.’ No, not so. He who believes lets himself be baptized and does not continue to argue, because where water and a person to baptize him can be found, he has the order of Christ before his eyes. However, where the two not available, their faith is enough

Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p 124

Zwingli debates Hubmaier (With Reference to Baptism)

Zwingli was based in Zurich and shortly after Hubmaier and he began to dispute with one another he found himself confronted with members of his own congregations adopting Anabaptist views. The nature of the debate progressively came to exemplify Zwingli’s own struggles to bring Zurich back under control from the growing number of Anabaptists in his own city. Hubmaier by contrast moved around several times in this period whilst on the run from civil authorities in the general region.

On Practices Not Found in Scripture

Hubmaier, in his debates with Zwingli, not only used to emphasise that practices should be justified by scripture but ribbed his opponent who argued that because a practice wasn’t denounced in scripture it was therefore permissible. He wrote in one letter “Then I may also baptize my dog and my donkey . . . For it is not prohibited anywhere in explicit words that we do these things.” (From The Letter ‘Baptism of Believers’) which Zwingli rejected stating only people were to be baptised. Hubmaier then asked if it was permissible to baptise a Turk or a Jew which Zwingli also denied saying faith was required. The Radical Reformer on this stated that children likewise made no display of faith so shouldn’t be baptised. Luther, by contrast, anticipated this anabaptist objection and instead argued the burden of proof was to show children didn’t have faith (See the quoted excerpt of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church under the section detailing this) yet this was something even the Reformed Christians didn’t necessarily admit. Hubmaier rejected this in the absence of an active confession due to its precedent in scripture. For him to give licence to practices on the basis that they weren’t explicitly rejected by scripture gave the Reformers no grounds on which to be critical of the Roman Catholic Churches practices. For Hubmaier Zwingli the Magisterial Reformers were just changing the meanings of Roman Catholic doctrines which had no warrant in scripture. Hubmaier conceded he couldn’t be 100% sure infant baptism didn’t take place occasionally amongst the apostles but that without more knowledge argued such reasoning was speculation in clear contrast to explicit words of scripture. Zwingli was aware of this in their exchanges insisting that Hubmaier had “not therefore yet proved the negative: ‘No one may be baptized but the believer’.” (Zwingli, Refutation of Baptist Tricks, p165). A sentiment Hubmaier later turned on Zwingli and his definition of sola fide.

Whilst this argumentation by ‘regulative principle’ employed by Hubmaier does have flaws I cannot help but personally be reminded of arguments that practices and beliefs not explicitly rejected by scripture serves as a licence in our own day. Namely by many progressive activists within the church to advance agendas not in accord with scripture, often with great effect.

On Baptism as Circumcision

While Hubmaier and Zwingli debated a number of topics perhaps the most important was the Reformed claim that circumcision was swapped out for baptism as the mark of the covenant people. Hubmaier, however, again dismissed such a claim because it had no explicit reference in scripture stating…

“For you well know that circumcision is not a figure of water baptism. You have no Scripture about that.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p180

Which some will find more convincing than others but this was actually a point that Zwingli conceded in the debate. Zwingli, however, maintained his defence by reiterating his point that just because it wasn’t explicit didn’t mean it was permitted or reasonable. Hubmaier, however, in light of this reminded Zwingli of a previous debate against a Roman Catholic apologist Johann Faber. Zwingli during his debate with Faber had insisted that his opponent support every dogmatic statement with scripture. Something he later no longer held to when been interrogated by an even more radical opponent. Hubmaier was using Zwingli’s own debating approach that he had employed against Catholics against him. However, it is notable that Hubmaier didn’t spend long on this considering it is the main argument employed by Reformed Christians practising paedobaptism.

The Sequence of Teaching and Baptism

Another point of contention worth raising in the disagreement between Zwingli and Hubmaier regarding the role of teaching in relation to baptism. This partly rested on the understanding of two Reformers views on the efficacy of John’s baptism. Zwingli denied that Acts 19 detailed a ‘rebaptism’ of John’s followers by the Apostles but rather the acceptance of their teaching. That the baptism didn’t describe an act but an external acquiescence. Hubmaier, however, asserted that it was the fact that John’s followers had accepted the teaching of the apostles that they were subsequently baptised by them, as in every explicit case of baptism in the New Testament.

“You cannot show me one person in all of Scripture who has been water-baptized without prior teaching. Or show us one with clear Scripture, then we are already overcome.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p191

This issue reflected a key difference in the relationship between teaching and baptism between the two Reformers. Both saw importance in baptism and teaching but for Hubmaier they were conjoined, part of the same journey, but for Zwingli they were important but operating independently. For Zwingli one could accept teaching without baptism and one could accept baptism without teaching (provided their parents or carers were Christian). Teaching for Zwingli would follow baptism in infancy and once a believer sufficiently taught they were confirmed, as was practiced in Zurich where he taught.

“Teaching should precede the outward baptism, along with the determination to change one’s life by the help of God.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p101

Another point of difference was that Zwingli held the idea of predestination. That God before time had chosen those to be saved and thus sovereignly intervened in their lives to bring them to faith stating “God freely with himself settles upon, prejudges and foreordains . . . whom he will, even before they are born.” (Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, p238). His objection of Hubmaier’s belief that teaching or acquiescence to the tenants of the faith should precede baptism deprived God of sovereignty and refused baptism, the outward sign of salvation, to the elect children of believers. Hubmaier attacked such thinking as reminiscent of the Pharisees who followed tradition at the expense of explicit commands of scripture in Matthew 15 (v3 “…And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”). Hubmaier also rejected the idea that man contributed to his own salvation in stating “To command virtue in reliance upon human strength, is nothing else than to command one to fly without wings.” (No 16 of Hubmaier’s 18 Theses Concerning the Christian Life). Regarding the children of the elect being saved by their parent’s election, he pointed to Matthew 12 and elsewhere wrote…

“Christ said: ‘whoever believes himself and is baptized, ect.’ He does not say, for whomever father, mother, or godparents believe. Indeed, a child whose salvation should depend on the faith of his father, mother, or godparents, would often suffer from heartbreak.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p138

On Original Sin, Infant Mortality and Hubmaiers occasional Baptism of Infants

On the question of original sin and the death of infants Hubmaier had to wrestle with this question theologically but also pastorally. On the topic of the death of unbaptised infants he wrote…

The hand of the Lord is not short, he does what he wills . . . He is Lord. He has mercy upon whomever he wills. … he can save the infants very well by grace since they know neither good nor evil.

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Hubmaier p 140

Hubmaier stated the given that scripture was silent on their ultimate fate he could not say definitively the fate of unbaptised infants. Rather that we are to pray and hope God would be merciful to them but that his will would ultimately be done. This was notably different from the beliefs of earlier centuries describing unbaptised children as ‘of the devil’. Despite this Hubmaier is recorded as actually baptising infants who were sick at the request of the parents, he wrote in a letter to a friend…

“If there are parents of a sick child at a given time, who most earnestly wish the child to be baptized, I baptize it. In this matter, I take on the sickness myself along with the sickly little ones, but only for a time, until better instructed.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, A Letter to Oecolampad, in Hubmaier p 72


Whether Hubmaier thought the human will could be drawn to God of its own accord, or only by means of God’s grace is expanded upon in a 1525 work entitled ‘On Free Will’. In it he states that there exist three parts to the will: man as it stands “can do nothing except sin” but his spirit “has remained utterly upright and intact” and his soul “through the disobedience of Adam was … maimed in will and wounded”. Man is saved by being “remediable through the Word of God, which teaches us anew to will or not will what is good and what is evil” his soul is “awakened by the Word of God” and by being “enlightened through the Holy Spirit,” can draw near to God. Whilst this seems hard to summarise it seems that Hubmaier would attest that man is broken but, compared to the writings of Calvin and Luther, he is not entirely devoid of the good granted to him by virtue of being made in God’s image.

The End of the Debate

The debate was never settled, in 1525 Hubmaier, on the run from Austrian forces, actually arrived in Zwingli’s Zurich, which had been torn over the issue of believer’s baptism. Zwingli had him arrested and put on trial before the city council which resulted in their final disputation. The city council ruled in favour of Zwingli and Hubmaier was forced to recant of his views. However, in a move reminiscent of the later Thomas Cranmer the next day, before a congregation, he recanted of his rejection of believer’s baptism. Hubmaier was subsequently tortured until he confessed to rejecting the doctrine and was subsequently told to leave Switzerland where he promptly headed to Moravia. Now safe he once more rejected his denial of believers baptism, although his own weakness disturbed him.

In Moravia, he made converts of Zwinglian’s but after the region came under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire he was once more arrested, tortured by the rack, tried for heresy by the church and imprisoned. In 1528 he was burnt at the stake in the local public square and his wife, with a stone tied around her neck, was drowned three days later. Two years later Zwingli himself would die, executed after being found wounded in a battle between Protestant and Roman Catholic Swiss Cantons.

Relevant Baptismal Canons of the Council of Trent in the Counter-Reformation

The response to the Reformation by the Roman Catholic church was manifold but perhaps most theologically notable response was the Council of Trent that met through the years of 1545 to 1563. The council was about responding to the Reformation writ large but the seventh session dealt explicitly with the sacraments and gives 14 canons on baptism that pronounced anathemas on any who deviated from the position of the Roman Catholic Church in the listed ways in practice or beliefs.

Whilst the views outlined here weren’t new the enforcement of them by the council was to ensure that debates that had happened in the earlier middle ages, and arguably helped contribute to the eventual call for Reformation could not occur again. Amongst its claims, specific to the timing of baptism was that it was required to be saved (Canon 5 on Baptism), infants can be baptised by the faith of the church (Canon 13 on Baptism), the upholding of the bishop as the sole agent of confirmation (Canon 3 on Confirmation), the compulsion of those baptised as infants to be confirmed and bound by the laws of the church (Canon 14 on Baptism).

The Reformation went on to have lasting changes on the church across Europe wherever it was found but it was only really in the 1700s when the next major change to how baptism was understood and considered was to take place.

Revivalism and Evangelicalism in Britain and the Americas

Whilst the Reformation changed a great deal in Europe baptismal practice survived relatively unchanged. The theology behind such actions had shifted in the groups that had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, and this was reflected in liturgies, but the baptism of newborns shortly after birth continued. The only exception to this was the Anabaptists and Baptist movements that had adopted a position known as credobaptism, that is baptism upon confession of faith. Faith in general, variously understood, had come to play a massive role in the Protestant tradition but in the 1700s this was to come into play in a new and powerful way.

In the first half of the 18th century a series of what now was later understood as revivals began to sweep Britain and its American Colonies. These were movements which placed a great emphasis on the agency of the holy spirit, personal holiness and an assent of the heart to faith, not just the mind. Originally rooted in non-conformist traditions two of its most famous influencers came were actually to emerge from the Church of England. John Wesley and George Whitfield, two of the best-known preachers, were actually part of the same study group dubbed the ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford University. Wesley himself was heavily influenced by the Moravians and famously describes the time when he experienced being born again in his journal…

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, London, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart of a person through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

The relevance of these revivals, known as the First Great Awakening in America and in the UK as the Methodist Revival, regarding baptism was how it came to frame salvation as a conversion of the heart. John Wesley, in another account, detailed how in a journey to the Americas he was chaplain to a ship carrying Moravians (also known as the Brethren). The Moravians drew heavily on the Pietistic movement which emerged out of Lutheranism in the late 17th century and placed great emphasis on personal holiness and spiritual rebirth. When Wesley’s ship was caught in a storm he recalls…

“At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.”

In a time and place where being a Christian was a universal facet of life the witness of the Moravians to Wesley was a radical one. In the Moravians Wesley saw a conviction of faith and assurance of salvation that he linked explicitly to the idea of being born again. The term born again was to become ubiquitous in the resultant Evangelicalism that was to emerge from these Revivals and drew on the language of John 3:3. Yet in a world where people had come to be baptised before conversion the passage came to represent a coming to faith that stood independent of baptism. Even the later language of revival was predicated on the notion that someone had something deep down that needed resuscitation. The time when faith came alive, often after baptism, was when many Evangelicals believed they had really become a Christian.

In some ways, the arguments of Whitefield, Edwards, Wesley and those like them more was not totally dissimilar to the arguments of Hubmaier centuries earlier. The key difference, however, in their views was that the Revivalists was that they didn’t link conversion to baptism wherein Hubmaier did. Both were critical of what had been described as the ‘nominalism’ of mainline religion and placed great emphasis on the role of faith. One of the unfortunate side effects of revivalism was the idea of salvation and baptism being linked was further drifting apart.

What emerges from the preaching of the Revivalists was a need to experience the assurance of salvation or as Calvin earlier wrote…

In one word, he only is a true believer who, firmly persuaded that God is reconciled, and is a kind Father to him, hopes everything from his kindness, who, trusting to the promises of the divine favour, with undoubting confidence anticipates salvation; … none hope well in the Lord save those who confidently glory in being the heirs of the heavenly kingdom… the goodness of God is not property comprehended when security does not follow as its fruit.

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3:2:16

Given the Protestant emphasis on faith, people felt it was important to not just know faith theologically but for it be experienced. The earlier Puritans (Protestant nonconformists) placed great emphasis on this and would often detail accounts that would lead to their salvation. Knappen, in his book on the Tudor Puritans, writes…

[besides possessing proper intellectual belief], One must next renounce and repent of every known sin. He must study God’s requirements as set forth in the Bible, realize his shortcomings, and “rip up” his heart in genuine penitence. Not only the present mode of life but all the past must be dragged into the white light of conscience, dissected, and examined with a determination to overlook no slightest failing or secret desire. When the depth of his iniquity became apparent, it was to be contrasted with the height of God’s standard, and one could then realize the hopelessness of his situation….Thus the penitent reached a state of “holy desperation.” Convinced of his extreme sinfulness and inability to help himself, he cast himself wholly on the mercy of God. Then came the peace that passeth all understanding, the definite assurance of salvation as the Holy Spirit convinced him that by justifying faith he was numbered among the elect. This experience was extremely important and was to be carefully scrutinized, for there were false feelings of repentance and counterfeit assurances of salvation which might deceive even the subject himself. These were, of course, worse than none at all, because they lulled the unregenerate into a false sense of security, which precluded further striving.
Tudor Puritanism: A Chapter in the History of Idealism p 393

It is hard to imagine the Revivals of the Protestant world existing in a context in which infant baptism is not the norm. It is also hard to imagine such conduct occurring in the early years of the church or the opening generations after the apostles themselves. Whilst the Protestant Reformation rightly placed a great emphasis on faith, the interplay between faith and baptism was something of an abstraction for many as evidenced by the fervour these revivals inspired. Faith had come to be expected after baptism and began to display itself in revivals as something that was accompanied by excessive displays of repentance and emotion. These displays were made in order that one might be brought to that position of assurance with regard to their salvation.

With the exception of the Methodist church, that emerged after Wesley’s death, the Revivalists didn’t so much as introduce their own institutions but rather fundamentally influenced existing Protestant bodies. Their emphasis on the need for being born again and the role of faith as being necessary for salvation also had a strong ecumenical impulse that had previously not been as widespread. The idea that a particular church held the keys to salvation or even a particular liturgy, was directly challenged. Instead, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ began to gain increasingly currency. This impacted different denominations in different ways but over time Revivalism and Evangelicalism, in general, came to be represented increasingly by the Credobaptist traditions who were linking the idea of being ‘born again’ to baptism.

In his essay on the topic Presbyterian Rich Lusk wrote that based on statistics from the US General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church “In 1811, there had been 20 paedobaptisms per 100 communicants; by 1856, the ration was just over 5 per hundred” and “New England Congregationalism continually lost members to newly formed Baptist churches” and…

“A similar downgrade was occurring in other ostensibly Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed ration was only slightly better than the Presbyterian in 1856, at around 7 paedobaptisms per hundred communicants. Things were even worse in other bodies. The New School Presbyterians were leaving six out of seven children unbaptized. Paedobaptism was so rare among the Congregationalists by the mid-1850s that Hodge could truthfully claim, “in the Congregational churches in New England, infant baptism is, beyond doubt, dying out.” Only the high church Episcopalians [who believed in baptismal regeneration and rejected revival] seemed unaffected by the trend”

Rich Lusk Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies, Chapter 3 in The Federal Vision.

And later on…

“Infants, it was thought, needed new birth, as well as adults. They could not be saved without it. But the only channel of the new birth which was recognized was a conscious experience of conviction and conversion. Anything else, according to Gilbert Tennent, was a fiction of the brain, a delusion of the devil. In fact, he ridiculed the idea that one could be a Christian without knowing the time when he was otherwise.”

Rich Lusk Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies, Chapter 3 in The Federal Vision.

America and much of British Evangelicalism despite originating in the preaching and teaching of Paedobaptist ministers seemed led in subsequent generations to Baptist conclusions in the minds of a great many. Lusk in his essay on the topic goes at great lengths to point out how the covenantal justifications for christening were considered existentially uncompelling even to the laity of many Reformed and Calvinist churches in the US where “Any view of sacramental efficacy came to be regarded as ‘magic.’” (Lusk) and were instead linked to piety, conversion of the will and obedience to the commands of Christ. Lusk even quotes an excerpt from a Presbyterian minister from the mid-1800s whose theology was impacted by the influence of Evangelicalism…

[I]n heart and spirit th[ose] [who have received infant baptism] are of the world. In this aspect, how is [the church] to treat them? Precisely as she treats all other impenitent and unbelieving men—she is to exercise the power of the keys, and shut them out from the communion of the saints. She is to debar them from all the privileges of the inner sanctuary. She is to exclude them from their inheritance until they show themselves meet to possess it.By her standing exclusion of them from the Lord’s table, and of their children from the ordinance of Baptism, she utters a solemn protest against their continued impenitence, and acquits herself of all participation in their sins. It is a standing censure. Their spiritual condition is one that is common with the world. She deals with them, therefore, in this respect, as the Lord has directed her to deal with the world. . . . Is not their whole life a continued sin? Are not their very righteousnesses abominable before God? Repentance to them is not the abandonment of this or that vice; it is the renunciation of the carnal heart, which is enmity against God: and, until they are renewed in spirit and temper of their minds, they can do nothing which the Church is at liberty to approve as done by them. . . . As of the world they are included in the universal sentence of exclusion, which bars the communion of saints against the impenitent and profane. They are sharers in its condemnation. They are put, as impenitent, upon the same footing with all others that are impenitent. As rejectors of Christ, they are kept aloof from the table of the Lord, and debarred from all the rights and privileges of the saints.Their impenitence determines the attitude of the Church towards them; for God has told her precisely what that attitude should be to all who obey not the Gospel. What more can be required? Are they not dealt with, in every respect, according to their quality? . . . Is it not equally clear that their condition, as slaves, determines their treatment in all other respects, until they are prepared to pass the test which changes their status? Is not this precisely the state of things with the Church and baptized unbelievers? Are they not the slaves of sin and of the Devil, existing in a free Commonwealth for the purpose of being educated to the liberty of the saints? . . . But until they come to Him, [Scripture] distinctly teaches that they are to be dealt with as the Church deals with the enemies of God.

The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell pgs. 341-348

Which is really quite shocking considering this is coming from a Presbyterian minister. Going by his own reading he would reject John Calvin himself from the sacraments. Despite this, the practice of barring such people from the sacraments itself is one that ministers of paedobaptist traditions would have historically extended to baptist or Anabaptist believers in prior years. As we can see Lusk later contrasts this with another Presbyterian minister who wrote from the period…

If the sacraments are regarded as in themselves outward rites only, that can have no value or force except as the grace they represent is made to be present by the subjective exercises of the worshipper, it is hard to see on what ground infants, who are still without knowledge or faith, should be admitted to any privilege of the sort [quoted from pgs. 237-238, Romanticism in American Theology, Nichols] . . . [T]he Baptists . . . refuse to baptize infants, on the ground that they have no power to repent and believe in Christ, so as to be the subjects of that inward spiritual conversion of which baptism is the profession and sign, and without which it can have no meaning. What conclusion, indeed, can well be more logical, if we are to believe that there is no objective power, no supernatural grace, in the sacrament itself[?] . . . It belongs on the old order of thinking on the subject, as we have it in . . . Chrysostom and the Christian fathers generally, which made baptism to be the sacrament of a real regeneration by the power of the Holy Ghost into the family of God. Why then should it [paedobaptism] be given up, along with this [baptismal regeneration], as an obsolete superstition? It is becoming but too plain, that the Paedobaptist part of the so-called Evangelical Christianity of the present day is not able to hold its ground steadily, at this pint, against the Baptist wing of the same interest. The Baptistic sentiment grows and spreads in every direction. [Pgs. 214-215, “The Old Doctrine of Baptism,” John Nevin, Mercersburg Review, April 1860.] . . . On this subject of baptismal grace, then, we will enter into no compromise with the anti-liturgical theology we have now in hand. . . . It is impossible . . . to establish the necessity of infant baptism, except upon the ground that baptism imparts a special grace. . . . [Revivalistic Presbyterianism is therefore] hostile to infant baptism . . . in reality, whatever it may be in profession . . . and unfriendly, therefore, to the whole idea . . . it has been based upon in the Reformed church from the beginning. . . . To what a pass things have already come in this respect throughout our country, by reason of the baptistic spirit which is among us . . . [t]hose who have eyes to see, can see for themselves.

Vindication of the Revised Liturgy: Historical and Theological, John Williamson Nevin, in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Historical Writings of John Williamson Nevin p 399-400,

What is incredible is that Thornwell and Nevin were a minister and theologian, respectively, in the same tradition during the same period. As we can see the latter invokes the beliefs of the earlier church regarding the efficacy of the rite itself as requisite for salvation. Albeit in a manner that is operative “without knowledge or faith” in a recipient who has “no power to repent and believe in Christ”. Nevin subsequently invokes the name of Chrysostom ‘and the Christian fathers generally’ for a precedent of his own position. Personally, I find this notably given Chrysostom himself wasn’t baptised till 18 and many of his contemporaries were not baptised till even later in life (notably the other two Holy Hierarchs with Gregory baptised at 30 and Basil at 27 respectively). Whilst this doesn’t detract from the regenerative aspect of baptism present in their writings the inability or unwillingness to wrestle with the more complicated picture presented by the lives of such giants of church history is indicative of precisely where the traditional Presbyterian position imagines itself camped upon, justified or otherwise, and what such appeals represented to the mind of the writers like Nevin. In any case, Evangelicalism represented a grassroots holiness movement that had come to upset many now long-established orthodoxies and orthopraxis regarding baptism in the Protestant church.

Growth of Pentecostalism

The next major shift regarding baptism was to emerge in the late 19th century and was the movement known collectively as Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism emerged out of Evangelical communities that were distinguished by a combined belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, and claims that its members possessed apostolic power, to do miracles and exhibit spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy. Dwight L Moody, a preacher later linked with the movement (although wasn’t a Pentecostal himself) is quoted as preaching in 1875 his conviction that “the world was on the edge of a very great event” which was said to be either a ‘great war’ or the ‘second coming of Christ’ (Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture by Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer, p 36) and…

Moody—whose influence permeated much of popular evangelicalism at the end of the century—used the phrase baptism in the Holy Spirit to describe a profound experience he claimed had altered his spiritual perception … Because Torrey believed that the baptism with the Holy Spirit alone would facilitate the evangelization of the world before Christ’s return, he taught that Spirit baptism was mandatory.

Ibid, p 30-31

Moody and others like him were heavily influenced by the holiness movement and followed in the tradition of John Wesley. The idea of the baptism in the Holy Spirit as something distinct from baptism itself was a formalisation of the seed unconsciously planted when the idea of being born again was raised as a possibility distinct from baptism. Something only possible once baptism itself had been made ubiquitous and received without faith or confession.

It was only after Moody, however, that the idea of the baptism in the Holy Spirit would begin to be associated with the dramatic displays later associated with it. In the 1900’s the outbreak of tongues-speaking, claims of miraculous healings and other dramatic acts were all. These were as Moody had earlier articulated aimed at the facilitation of “the evangelization of the world before Christ’s return”. As time has continued and the world has gone on these expressions of the holy spirit, in turn, have also informed later Pentecostal theology. One Pentecostal writing on the topic of baptism…

It is impossible to speak of the Pentecostal perspective on water baptism. The singular distinctive of Pentecostalism is that the Holy Spirit moves. Likewise, Pentecostal theology is dynamic rather than static. Pentecostal theology is developing; it is being formed, and will continue to be formed. … The Holy Spirit inspires a diversity of tongues which must be properly interpreted and discerned. The Holy Spirit inspires words of wisdom and knowledge speaking “with the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 13:1).1 The task of theology is to understand the mysteries of God. The theologian should be careful to remember that the best discernment, the best interpretation is likened to seeing “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, the unity of the faith depends upon the primacy of love and embracing the diversity of theological tongues. In other words, a diversity of theological expressions within the Christian church need not signify schism. Pentecostalism resists homogeneous expressions of Christianity.

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p1

Many Pentecostals today, despite the tradition originating in Wesleyan holiness movements would deny any sacramental efficacy in water-baptism. Holding instead to a credobaptist view that such an act is an ordinance that is subordinated to conversion and baptism of the holy spirit which occurs distinctly from baptism as conventionally understood. One commentator stating that “Pentecostals at large will not own a view of sacramental efficacy that is determined to promote self-contained efficacy independent of the participant’s faith.” (Harold D Hunter ‘Reflections by a Pentecostalist on Aspects of BEM’ p 317). This position, however, has become significantly more nuanced with the advent of the Charismatic movement in the 1960s.

The influence of the later Charismatic movement

Early on Pentecostalism had established itself as its own tradition, it was rare to find a Pentecostal in another tradition as initially they were seldom tolerated or soon left to join a church that reflected their newfound theology. Over time, however, from the 1960s onwards Pentecostals were increasingly found in traditions that had not espoused Pentecostal beliefs. These included Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and more. This fusion between Pentecostal belief and other traditions reflected the earlier ecumenical mindset of the Evangelical movements and began to progressively exert a strong grass-roots influence on the theology of some of these traditions. An example of this can be reflected in the views of a charismatic Presbyterian, on baptism, who is quoted by Tomberlin as stating…

Rodman Williams (Charismatic Presbyterian) presents water baptism as an ordinance. As a cleansing rite, water baptism is a “vivid symbol” of forgiveness of sins in which there is a “close connection between baptism and regeneration.” Water baptism is a public declaration that “expresses an irrevocable commitment to Jesus Christ” and “relates to both a union with Christ and in Him to all other Christians.” Water baptism is not regenerative, but “may be the channel, or means, by which the grace of regeneration is applied and received.” However, water baptism is not “essential to salvation.” Water baptism is a symbol that “suggests an immersion in the Spirit is comparable to immersion in water.” Baptism is unrepeatable and its validity lies in the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the believer, not in the “human administrator” or practiced mode. Williams affirms the practice of infant baptism as an act of God’s prevenient grace but warns that churches that practice infant baptism should “make every effort to reinstate the baptism of believers.”

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p4 citing J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, p 221-241

The fact that it found traction in Roman Catholic circles is also indicative that its identity as a form of distinctly Protestant theology was notably less firmly articulated by its predecessors. Richard Quebedeaux writes…

Protestants and Catholics, conservatives and liberals, do not automatically discard their own theological and ecclesiastical differences when they come together in the movement. Nor do the movement’s leaders themselves agree on the precise definition of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Protestant Neo-Pentecostals, for instance, often view the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a ‘second work of grace’ after conversion … Roman Catholics … look at the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as an interior experience (usually with outward manifestations) of the Spirit’s filling and transforming power in the life of a believer who has received the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of water baptism. The exact nature of the charismata (such as tongue speaking and divine healing) and their operation as outlined in 1 Cor. 12-14 are also debated …

Richard Quebedeaux, The New Charismatics p 153

An example of the Charismatic Roman Catholic view of baptism in the spirit is described as…

“Baptism in the Spirit is not a human intervention, it is a divine intervention. It is a renewal of baptism and of the whole of Christian life, of all the sacraments. For me, it was a renewal of my religious profession, of my confirmation, and of my priestly ordination. The whole spiritual organism is revived as when wind blows on a flame. It is the grace of a new Pentecost!”

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

And in 1992 Pope John Paul II said on the subject of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal…

At this moment in the Church’s history, the Charismatic Renewal can play a significant role in promoting the much-needed defense of Christian life in societies where secularism and materialism have weakened many people’s ability to respond to the Spirit and to discern God’s loving call. Your contribution to the re-evangelization of society will be made in the first place by personal witness to the indwelling Spirit and by showing forth His presence through works of holiness and solidarity.

Address of Pope John Paul II to the ICCRO Council: March 12, 1992

The Charismatic influence meant that whilst the Pentecostal understanding linked baptism in the holy spirit to the ‘finished work’ of conversion other movements leant in a direction more reminiscent of the ‘second work of grace’. Practically this meant that whilst one was converted at baptism, or according to the doctrine of a tradition, the manifestation of charismatic gifts was something that established itself sometimes years or decades after conversion. This reflected what John Wesley had described as ‘progressive sanctification’. The manifestation of such gifts of the holy spirit also became to be seen as a sign or seal of God at work in the life of the believer, drawing on verses like Romans 8:9-10. Exercising such gifts became linked with the idea of the assurance of salvation but entered into a public dimension that also became an indicator of spiritual authority. This heightened the role of experience and personal revelation in the life of the believer further.

Charismatics, therefore, differed from Pentecostals in their frequent maintenance of denominational sensibilities (notable for paedobaptists) although these were sometimes reinterpreted or found emphasis in new places. There is also often an attempt to reconcile the sacramental aspects of a tradition with the Pentecostal emphasis on the agency of the Holy Spirit on an individuals life. There is some evidence that this has impacted Pentecostal thought with recent commentators describing water-baptism as a means of grace, Tomberlin once more writes…

Kenneth Archer has presented a Pentecostal sacramentalism in the context of a pneumatic ecclesiology and a dynamic pneumatic soteriology in which the “sacraments are significant symbolic signs that bring transformative grace.” He laments that “some Pentecostals deny any ‘real grace’ being mediated,” reducing the sacraments “to mere memorial rites… devoid of the Spirit’s presence and power.” Archer insists that the sacraments are “redemptive experiences, for they provide worshipers with opportunities for the ongoing spiritual formation of being conformed to the image of Christ through encountering the Spirit of Christ through the participatory reenactment of the story of Jesus.” The sacraments “evoke remembrance of the past and provoke playful anticipation of a future (promise) that collapses into the present mysterious salvific experiences.

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p9 citing Kenneth J. Archer, “Nourishment for our Journey: The Pentecostal Via Salutis and Sacramental Ordinances,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 13:1

Which shows quite how far Pentecostal theology has moved from its early days in the 1900s. Some Pentecostals will now be willing to affirm the baptism of the holy spirit as a sacramental reality and that the apostolic witness saw this linked with water-baptism. Some Pentecostal commentators, therefore, draw a distinction between an ex opere operato view of baptism, that the act itself is effectual, and an ex opere operantis view of baptism, that the agent (faith) makes an act effectual. A Pentecostal might, therefore, argue that baptism is only salvific if entered into with faith just as a Roman Catholic might argue that a marriage is only sacramental if it meets the right parameters and conditions to be considered such. Pentecostal theology of baptism, therefore, describes sacraments as efficacious when the faith of the individual is the active ingredient. Since they view faith as the active ingredient, however, Pentecostals are significantly less dependant on a set structure for the liturgy of the baptism for it to be considered efficacious. This also means they practice what paedobaptists would describe as rebaptism except that, like Hubmaier, they would assert that a baptism without active faith was no baptism at all. Whether the act of coming to faith preceding baptism is freely exercised or itself an act of grace is a matter for debate amongst Pentecostals.

Church decline in the West and its impact on baptismal practice

Whilst the 1960s saw the advent of the Charismatic movement this was also a period which saw a notable decline in religious affiliation across the Western world. Reasons for this are debated but it has resulted in a situation where Churches are increasingly baptising adults. One Anglican commentator writes…

The Church of England baptises three times as many adults each year as the Baptist Union of Great Britain. This is a little known truth, obscured perhaps by the fact that the established church also baptises infants. Yet the official statistics are hard to argue with: in the Church of England from 2002-2010, for example, the number of people baptised on profession of faith rose from 8,400 to 11,160 (a rise of nearly a third). Surprisingly, perhaps, only about 60% of Anglican baptisms in 2010 were of infants under one year of age, as more and more older children and adults seem to be being baptised later in life.

Lee Gatiss, The Anglican Doctrine of Baptism in Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

The statistics that Gatiss draws upon also indicate that the only number of baptisms going up in the Church of England is that of those older than the age of thirteen. Whilst the case of the Church of England isn’t the only case like this it is arguably broadly representative of much of the West’s mainline churches. Albeit by some metrics doing better than others despite still experiencing an unprecedented decline.

Churches as a result, notably within paedobaptist traditions, have had to adapt to the increasing numbers of unbaptised individuals. Gone are the days when a prayer book for a church might be published without a rite for the baptism of adults. Some institutions like the Church of England are also now publishing and allowing the practice of services of thanksgiving to appear in liturgical texts being published. Gatiss also points out for us that in 2010, within the Church of England, the number of infants being dedicated in this way stood at 5,930. This is a minority but it was something I did with my own son mere weeks ago and is an option that previously wasn’t formally available in the Church until recently. This is down to arguably two reasons…

  1. The first is the rising number of the laity who are intentionally opting to allow their children to be baptised upon their own profession of faith.
  2. The second is in an effort to mitigate cases of baptism by individuals who have no formal membership or affiliation to the church.

In America, the situation may vary but for many institutional paedobaptist churches in Europe the baptism of a child, whilst not always an obligation anymore, still remains the right of a parent. This means that whilst some may place some expectation of commitment or membership to the church on the part of the parent the church has no ability to deny or withhold the baptism of a child. It also has no means to ensure the subsequent education of the child in the faith once baptised. Attitudes amongst clergy vary on this wherein some bemoan the fact that some enter into it without any seriousness and others see it as a good “boat to fish from” (albeit a shrinking one). Church historian and Anglican David Wright, however, commenting on such a situation describes it as a symptom of a “baptismally-reductionist church culture” (What has infant baptism done to baptism? p25). The questionable nature of approaching infant baptism as a boat to fish from is also reflected in the results of a study conducted by the Church of Scotland’s Committee of Mission and Evangelism Resources in 1997-1999 on the subject. David Wright writes…

Among the focus groups whose opinions it canvassed were four, in different kinds of social settings, representing the periphery of the Church – mostly people who called themselves Christians but rarely if ever attended church. A very clear majority of them (32 out of 40) believed that anyone who wanted should be able to have their baby baptised. Just over half (twenty-one) believed baptism had an effect on the child, while thirteen denied this. But when asked if a baptised baby was more likely to go to church when older all forty said no, and 32 out of 40 said the same about the parents of the baby being baptised. The juxtaposition of these two strong opinions – demanding baptism for any who wanted, and denying it had any bearing on later church attendance starkly illustrates what ‘the long reign of infant baptism’ has done to baptism.

David Wright, What has infant baptism done to baptism? p. 101, 102 quoting from ‘Infant Baptism and Mission and Evangelism in the Church of Scotland 1963-1997’ found in ‘Reports of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999’

Wright prior to this lambasts the appeal to an ‘invisible church’ to justify the embarrassment of ‘thousands, even millions of babies’ baptised by churches too eager to do so only to have them subsequently fail to mature into Christians after coming into their own faculties without any effectual theological formation. This is reflected in the fact that whilst groups like the Church of England baptise nearly 90,000 infants a year (roughly 13% of all UK births) whilst the equivalent number of confirmations stands at somewhere around 35,000. Which even then is not representative of the number of those confirmed who will remain a Christian in later years. Moreso, that confirmation itself has become seen a much more optional affair is indicative of institutional churches attempting to ‘broaden their net’ of those who might be considered full members in good standing with the church…

“The Church of England has relaxed its regulations, so that anyone who has been baptised can take communion, even in infancy if the priest agrees. Confirmation, then, has become much more of a conscious, opt-in sort of occasion”.

Paul Handley, Kate Middleton’s confirmed belief in the Guardian Newspaper

Suggesting that some churches view the answer to a decline in numbers as actually to persist and continue in loosening their membership requirements rather than arguably making them more stringent and focused on discipleship and catechism.

The long decline of catechism or education in relation to baptism is one long established and has ceased to find any institutionalised place in relation to baptism in the Protestant world for some time. If it has existed it has been ad hoc and free-floating by contrast to the prescription to baptise during set times. The exception to this is in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches who have catechumenate periods in advance of adult baptism. The Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Roman Catholic Church, a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, has also amongst other things sought to unify the practices of baptism, confirmation and first communion. Practices which as the normalisation of infant baptism took root in the church were separated.

The closest popular level equivalent of the RCIA in the Protestant world is arguably the Alpha course or Christianity Explored. However, the level of depth between the RCIA and these alternatives seems still to be differences of kind rather than a mere degree. The expansive nature of the RCIA points to the fact that it is targeted at those who possess a much higher degree of intent than those who are like to take up Alpha or Christianity Explored. On top of this, the adoption of the Alpha course by the Roman Catholic Church clearly communicates that they see such measures as an addition to the RCIA and not an alternative. The extended preparatory period is also, arguably, a recognition of similar periods of instruction evidenced in the first few centuries of the church. In it, we see a return to the scrutinies, exorcisms, creedal confessions and a liturgical structure mirroring the of the Apostolic Tradition associated with Hippolytus of Rome which conducts baptism either by triple pouring or immersion. The length of the RCIA is generally set but variable with the emphasis being on it taking as long as it needs for the individual concerned, this should be an indicator from the outset that the emphasis is on the individual. Maxwell Johnson in his book “Rites of Christian Initiation” calls the RCIA a “Copernican Revolution in sacramental theology today”. Arguably it is a revolution that looks to the earliest centuries of the Church for guidance.

In closing the practice and timing of baptism has changed a great deal from the early centuries. Even when the practice has stabilized the reasons for a practice have at times changed. The places where Christianity today is growing the most it is notably in areas outside of that which have colloquially been known as ‘Christendom’ where the identity of a people as Christian has for so long been taken for granted. This raises an interesting question about the future face of global Christendom and its theology as the movements carrying these growths have traditionally been minorities within Christendom. Evangelical Protestantism since the 1960’s has tripled the growth of the World’s population and doubled that of Islam (Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief p332). Doing so in regions like Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America, places not traditionally considered (Protestant) Christian heartlands. Despite this Roman Catholicism continues to grow slightly ahead of global population growth and the most widespread decline has been noted amidst the mainline Protestant traditions. Whilst paedobaptism is still the majority practice, as it has been for at least the last 1,500 years, credobaptism is more popular today than at any time in history.


In my first entry, I detailed my approach and understanding of scripture on the practice of baptism. In my second entry, I detailed my understanding of the witness and practice of the early generations of the church. In this third entry, I have attempted to chart notable developments in baptism, admittedly predominantly in the west, since the 5th century. This is my own attempt undertaken as a sleepless layman in both history and the church in my evenings and weekends with limited resources. People more erudite and well-read have done similar things with much a more systematic approach. Despite this, the process of reading up for this has been an education which I hope someone will find interesting.

I have chosen to emphasise those things I feel poignant or significant and some may disagree with my selection or the manner in which I discussed the topics in question. It should be no secret that I am a Protestant largely raised in the Church of England this will inevitably be reflected in my own writing as this is partly an attempt to make sense of the context in which I find myself.

My lasting impression, having read and written on this, was that the theological traditions that emerged over the preceding centuries seemed a lot more regimented on their baptismal practice than in the opening centuries of the church. The other thing that emerges is the interplay between grace and faith. Augustine taught that everything good was by the grace of God and this was reflected in the baptisms of the West right up until today. Yet the Reformation, in particular, placed an incredible emphasis on faith and its interplay with grace. This has been a tension not easily reconciled and I must confess on one hand I find the Roman Catholic teaching on the topic a great deal simpler but the idea salvation as ‘ex opere operantis’ existentially compelling. I also note that traditionally a theology of the sacraments has been consistent with regard to both communion and baptism. In this sense, I think the adoption of a covenantal framework for baptism and Calvin’s receptionist theology of communion are disparate. Luther is more consistent and arguably more in the vein of the Church he inherited and tried to reform, but I do not find his argument that baptism can create faith a compelling one. Later on, with the rise of Evangelicalism, I see a more compelling understanding of faith but a progressive retreat into a individualism over time that is hard to escape from. In Pentecostalism, I see a collapse into a strength of character rather than the strength of an argument.

In my last entry, I will try and articulate more fully what I think, with regard to baptism, in light of the prior three entries. More particularly my own reaction to Augustine’s teachings as I think they are pivotal in so many ways. I will also then reflect on where this leaves me and where I stand now in relation to the teaching and beliefs of the Anglican tradition in which I was raised and the Church of England that I am a member of. I will also, of course, try and outline where my conscience settles regarding baptism, its efficacy and our conduct with regard it.


On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Two: Witness of the Early Church

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Two: Witness of the Early Church

In the first part of this endeavour, I took a brief top-level view at the passages that had been raised by others, from scripture, during my discussions and reading on the topic on the timing of baptism. What I hope to subsequently address in this next, albeit not final part of my exploration is the witness and testimony of the early Christians. I will look at writings but also the lifestyle of those who walked the earth during this period to see what we may draw on the timing of baptism. I have ordered the following relevant statements chronologically and will close the section focusing on a number of questions or topics that have been raised in my mind as a result before closing with a conclusion and an introduction to my next topic in this investigation.

Early Writings

Didache (1st Century AD)

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The Didache, Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism.

The Didache, to my knowledge, is the earliest (I believe) text outside of scripture we have on baptism. The relevant chapter on baptism is helpful in that it gives not just a theology of baptism but a guide to its practice. In this we see baptism done, by name of the Trinity. With something of a flow-chart detailing the ideal form of water available.

I discovered this text years after my own baptism but was encouraged to note this pattern was followed when I was baptised myself. That my own would have, I imagine, looked recognisable to the original recipients of this text. I think it’s also worth noting the encouragement for all involved to fast in advance of baptism. There is no explicit confession required, which suggests perhaps those unable could still be baptised. This would, however, neglect the line “having first said all these things” indicating a catechetical element to the baptism. This line highlights that the first 6 chapters of the Didache actually, in some way, formed the liturgical structure of a baptism. Moreso, the command to fast, without exception (despite the Didache not shying from an exception in other areas, as on the nature of water to be used) does suggest a maturity of some degree on the part of that recipient. In any case, we do not see a bifurcation of the act and its preparation that can arise in classical paedobaptist justifications. The reading here seems more indicative of a believers baptism, yet one may say this does not eliminate the possibility of an infant baptism. However, to do so is based arguably not just on the absence of evidence, but despite it.

Epistle of Barnabas (Early 2nd Century AD)

…Mark how He has described at once both the water and the cross. For these words imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time: then He declares, I will recompense them. But now He says, Their leaves shall not fade. This means, that every word which proceeds out of your mouth in faith and love shall tend to bring conversion and hope to many. Again, another prophet says, And the land of Jacob shall be extolled above every land. (Zephaniah 3:19) This means the vessel of His Spirit, which He shall glorify. Further, what says He? And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees, and whosoever shall eat of them shall live forever. (Ezekiel 47:12) This means, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever, This means: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear you speaking, and believe, shall live forever.

Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 11. Baptism and the cross prefigured in the Old Testament.

The Epistle of Barnabas is worthy of mention because of its articulation of baptism as something by which “we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.” which suggests a form of regeneration occurs in the act that is explicitly connected to a living faith / trust in Jesus. Again the language of fruit is invoked making us think of its mention in Galatians and linking baptism with the deposit of the Holy Spirit.

Clement of Rome (35-101 AD)

For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments. For thus also says the Scripture in Ezekiel, If Noah, Job, and Daniel should rise up, they should not deliver their children in captivity. Now, if men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found possessed of works of holiness and righteousness?

2 Clement Chapter 6

Clement’s letter is interesting in that it grants agency to the recipient of baptism regarding whether or not they manage to keep it ‘holy and undefiled’. It places incredible emphasis on personal holiness and purity. It is also indicative of a mode of thinking that may explain the practice of actually putting off baptism until such a time where someone seems suitably prepared to undertake it or is running out of time (rightly or wrongly). Well known examples of those who were not baptised till later in life, despite being converted or raised in the faith included, but weren’t limited to Constantine the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephrem the Syrian, Augustine of Hippo, and even his opponent Pelagius. It is an articulation which lends weight to Tertullian’s later statement “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay.”

I find this passage challenging because I must confess that when I first began to read the scriptures for myself as a teenage I subconsciously agreed with this sentiment. One of the things that made me hesitant about baptism was that I didn’t think I could match up to what would subsequently be expected of me. This didn’t ultimately stop me, and the age I was baptised was considerably younger than some I mentioned above. Yet I can imagine these men thinking something similar regarding baptism, especially when we take into account Clement’s words above.

To baptise without proper catechism seems to increase the likelihood of someone baptised as a child defiling their baptism. This is particularly sobering when we read Clement’s words…

“If men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled?”

Which seems to speak against the idea that a child might share in the righteousness of their parent’s faith when devoid of their own.

Justin Martyr (100 – 160 AD)

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (John 3:5) Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. (Isaiah 1:16-20)

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

First Apology, Chapter 61

Justin Martyr’s his detailing of baptism is worthy of note particularly when he says “we were born without our own knowledge or choice” regarding our physical birth and then “in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge.” Presenting birth via baptism as something of an opposite number to natural birth.

Justin Martyr also articulates the first birth as that “of our parents coming together” which would be a term equally applicable to the covenantal perspective of the Reformed tradition of baptism being accessed on the agency of the parent. That child might be grandfathered into the Church on the basis of their parent’s faith until they can have their own. Instead, he frames baptism as the natural course of action for those who are “persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly.” Again we see no bifurcation here in Justin Martyr’s description of baptism as a response to coming to trust in Jesus. He calls such a thing illumination (“this washing is called illumination”) because “they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings” linking understanding to the act of washing and “he who is illuminated is washed” suggesting that baptism is in part a response to the fact that someone has already begun to be illuminated. This to me speaks to a form of feedback, as we are illuminated we are brought to baptism in order to grow in our illumination before the light of Christ’s work in us and the world. This seems inevitably predicated on a capacity for understanding.

Elsewhere Justin Martyr writes…

We, who have approached God through Him, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it.

Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 43

Here Justin Martyr explicitly links spiritual circumcision through baptism. One may deduce from this that baptism is either functioning as an act independently effectual on the subject or by contrast, and going on Justin’s earlier writings explicitly dependant on us being “persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly.” The latter seems the more consistent with Justin Martyr’s own witness.

I’ve had some comments here that when the author says they “were brought up in bad habits and wicked training” he is referring to people from an unbelieving background but I believe that by his subsequent distinction between children of ignorance and those “of choice and knowledge” we see the emphasis still firmly resting on choice as an active agent.

Irenaeus of Lyon (130 – 202 AD)

For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence, (Colossians 1:18) the Prince of life, (Acts 3:15) existing before all, and going before all.

Against Heresies Book 2:22:4

Neither, for a like reason, would he have given them baptism so readily, had he not heard them prophesying when the Holy Ghost rested upon them. And therefore did he exclaim, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” He persuaded, at the same time, those that were with him, and pointed out that, unless the Holy Ghost had rested upon them, there might have been someone who would have raised objections to their baptism.

Against Heresies, Book 3:12

Irenaeus is probably the first person (chronologically) I’ve seen actively put forward by those who advocate the baptism of newborns. This rests on the passage… “For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men”. Every age is sanctified by Christ’s incarnation, he did not scorn any aspect of the human condition. That by Irenaeus’s use of ‘born again to God’ we might suggest all ages can be born again to God, that is to be baptised. This is an inference but I am happy to admit that this does seem a fairly unambiguous one. Since we don’t have an explicit reference in scripture I think this is worth taking note of. Is it talking more about the incarnation, baptism, or both? I think Irenaeus’s assertion here is talking about both yet I think we can see this jarring with Justin Martyr’s earlier framing of baptism as an act by which we become children of “choice and knowledge”.

Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 AD)

This is the one grace of illumination, that our characters are not the same as before our washing. And since knowledge springs up with illumination, shedding its beams around the mind, the moment we hear, we who were untaught become disciples. Does this, I ask, take place on the advent of this instruction? You cannot tell the time. For instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit. For that faith is the one universal salvation of humanity, and that there is the same equality before the righteous and loving God, and the same fellowship between Him and all, the apostle most clearly showed, speaking to the following effect: Before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed, so that the law became our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith; but after that faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. Do you not hear that we are no longer under that law which was accompanied with fear, but under the Word, the master of free choice?

The Paedagogus, Chapter 6. The Name Children Does Not Imply Instruction in Elementary Principles

Clement’s writings show the role faith plays in advance of baptism “for instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit”. First comes instruction, then faith, then baptism with faith being “the one universal salvation of humanity”. The timing of baptism is then, therefore, after instruction has brought up the fruit of faith in the recipient.

Baptism is also seen to be the joined to salvation, Clement previously stating elsewhere in this chapter “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.” therefore being able to highlight a definitive moment of salvation is problematic, instead we see a process in which faith is key and is “trained by the Holy Spirit”. Clement also writes “Thus believing alone, and regeneration is perfection in life” regeneration being described elsewhere with allusion to 2 Corinthians 5:17 and the language of cleansing seem inevitably a reference to baptism.

The idea that one might be regenerate and yet not believe seems impossible to Clement. Despite this, he goes to great lengths to link children and the life of faith. However, the use of the language concerning children in this context is not at all the normative use of the term…

“He does not then use the appellation of children on account of their very limited amount of understanding from their age, as some have thought. Nor, if He says, Unless you become as these children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of God, are His words to be understood as meaning without learning. We, then, who are infants, no longer roll on the ground, nor creep on the earth like serpents as before, crawling with the whole body about senseless lusts; but, stretching upwards in soul, loosed from the world and our sins, touching the earth on tiptoe so as to appear to be in the world, we pursue holy wisdom, although this seems folly to those whose wits are whetted for wickedness. Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless.”

The Paedagogus, Chapter 5. All Who Walk According to Truth are Children of God

So far from being devoid of learning or understanding the children of God are those who pursue holy wisdom.

Tertullian of Carthage (155 – 240 AD)

For why is it necessary — if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — 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. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; 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! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks. 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, Chapter 18

I gave thanks to the Lord; and his absence became a source of consolation to me. In that same interval of a few days we were baptized, and to me the Spirit prescribed that in the water baptism nothing else was to be sought for bodily endurance. After a few days we are taken into the dungeon, and I was very much afraid, because I had never felt such darkness. O terrible day! O the fierce heat of the shock of the soldiery, because of the crowds! I was very unusually distressed by my anxiety for my infant. There were present there Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, and had arranged by means of a gratuity that we might be refreshed by being sent out for a few hours into a pleasanter part of the prison. Then going out of the dungeon, all attended to their own wants. I suckled my child, which was now enfeebled with hunger. In my anxiety for it, I addressed my mother and comforted my brother, and commended to their care my son. I was languishing because I had seen them languishing on my account. Such solicitude I suffered for many days, and I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; and forthwith I grew strong and was relieved from distress and anxiety about my infant; and the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere.

The Passion Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions, Chapter 1

As mentioned in my initial part Tertullian is often seen as damaged goods when considering his schismatic and Montanist ways later in life. Yet at the time of writing “On Baptism” Tertullian was firmly ensconced in the church of the time. Writing during the same period of Irenaeus we see him explicitly espousing a view that challenges what could be inferred from Irenaeus and his writings.

The important thing to note, however, was that Tertullian was talking about it. This thereby affirms that such a practice was taking place, something he recognised but thought was not the better way. This is a church in tension on the matter unlike the ideologically pure camps of the contemporary paedobaptist and credobaptist respectively.

It is also worth asking what the line “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?” mean within the light of Original sin? This seems to imply some form of an age of innocence which may be more compatible with the Eastern Orthodox view of Ancestral Sin. That whilst a child has not sinned themselves, yet still bearing the taint of the fall, they may be considered in a way innocent. This isn’t the only reference to something like this we will see here.

Tertullian, to me, ultimately seems to discourage infant baptism as irresponsible and arguably a gamble for all parties involved but acknowledges that the baptism itself is still effectual. Despite this, it was clear that members of the church were already seeing the topic as contentious. We also see in the passion of Perpetua and Felicitas no reference to the baptism of Perpetua’s child despite that of Perpetua. Whether such an event is assumed to happen at the same time as Perpetua’s or actually didn’t occur is a matter of speculation since we have no reference to it in the text.

I will be honest in saying I am sympathetic to this view I see Tertullian espousing here, even if I think he is too harsh in his judgements.

Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235 AD)

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

This quote here seems to be the most explicit to date that advocates newborn baptism. Hippolytus also raises the view of sponsors we first see mentioned by Tertullian. Hippolytus also opens this document by asserting such traditions have been explicitly handed down by the apostles themselves. As a result, this is probably the most important text, outside of Cyprian’s later writings, we have available regarding the preeminence of the paedobaptist cause.

I recommend reading the entire section because it also gives a detailed explanation of how baptism was carried out. It is significantly more developed than that which we see in the Didache and includes praying over the water followed by a triple immersion (per assent to the individual members of the Trinity). Then they are anointed with oil for the sake of exorcism and thanksgiving. The subject being baptised was also naked. I mention these details because the liturgy seems far removed from most Protestant infant baptisms. Some may assert that nevertheless, we see the baptism of newborns, therefore, the case is made. The issue with this is stated by paedobaptists Hendrick F. Stander and Johannes P. Louw in their book ‘Baptism in the early church’ which I will now quote at length…

“These little ones involved children who could speak for themselves, that is, who could respond to the questions of the bishop at the right moment using the prescribed words. Such children were surely not babies. Those who could not speak for themselves could be very young children who needed assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. Assistance in responding by pronouncing the required formulas. They were not exempted from the teaching and fasting preliminaries etc. The early Christian church never required a particular age for receiving baptism, and children who have accepted the faith and confessed their belief were indeed baptized. The question is not the fact that they were children, but whether this particular group who could not speak for themselves were indeed babies. One should then also assume that they could not partake in the whole ritual of baptism if they were indeed babies. However, one should also remember that the original Greek has not been recovered, except for a few small fragments. This quotation from the Apostolic Tradition is found, in a Latin translation which dates from the fourth century. Some scholars have even suggested that it is not unlikely that this verse was inserted in the Latin translation since incidentally it was also in the fourth century that infant baptism became popular. If one decides to accept the expression ‘little ones’ as indeed referring to babies, then one should not apply this to situations before the fourth century since one must remember that the ancient translators had no objections to inserting and omitting phrases from the text from which they translated. They often adapted texts to suit their present situation. This can be clearly seen when one compares, for example, extant sections of the Greek, Sahidic, Arabic, Ethiopic and Boharic translations of the Apostolic Tradition, (For a comparison of the different readings in these versions of the Apostolic Tradition, see Cuming 1976)

The most important argument, however, for the later addition this sentence is that it does not fit in very well in the periscope. As Aland (1963:43ff.) has pointed out, the sections which precede this baptismal regulation, deal exclusively with adult catechumens: their life is to be examined, their behaviour during their catechumenate is to be tested and they should spend the night which precedes their baptism in the reading of the Scriptures. These are all regulations which suit adult baptismal candidates, and definitely not infants. Aland concludes that it is very risky to base one’s arguments for infant baptism on the statement that ‘little ones too should be baptized’. He maintains that the rising popularity of infant baptism in the fourth century could have motivated a translator to insert a sentence to such an effect. He also refers to the Coptic translation having a statement that three years are required for a person to receive instruction in the Christian faith before baptism was administered.

But let us rather scrutinize the whole passage: Hippolytus tells us that the lives of those who were to be baptized were examined. Thereafter they were daily exorcized. Though exorcism before baptism does not have a New Testament precedent, it is found in almost all the ancient baptismal . Hippolytus is possibly describing a baptismal ceremony which took place during Easter Weekend. Easter is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church and was marked by special ceremonies, including baptism. The preparation for baptism started already on the Thursday when the catechumenates had bathe themselves. On the Friday they fasted. The next day (Saturday) the final exorcism took place. The bishop then made a sign, perhaps the cross, on the forehead, ears and noses of the candidates. In order to prevent subsequent defilement, they spend the rest of the time, till their baptism, in the reading of the Scriptures. The first act at the actual baptismal ceremony was the blessing of the water. If it were at all possible, the baptism had to take place in ‘living’ water (cf. the Didache chapter 2). Note that the baptismal candidates had to take off their clothes before they were baptized. We know from other writings that the taking off of clothes suggested the laying down of their earlier life. The reason for nudity in baptism is probably to fully expose the body, which had been exorcized, to the renewing influence of the water. This perhaps also explains why the women had to loosen their hair: it was merely to ensure that all the hair got wet . In fact, when a person was baptized, a sufficient quantity of water was used to properly wet the person. Sprinkling a few drops or even merely touching the head with moist fingers was I much later development. In fact, one can still find a few of the churches in Europe today practicing infant baptism and having a large enough baptismal font to receive the whole body of the infant. This is still a regular feature of infant baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church.

The anointing with oil before baptism derived from the ancient belief in the curative powers of oil (cf. Is. 5:14; Mk. 6:13). It appears that the bishop, who performed the actual baptism, was standing on the bank of the stream (or the edge of font) while the deacon stood in the water to assist the candidate. From the earliest times the recitation of one or other form of a creed was linked to baptism. This was to the requirement that candidates should confess their faith in Jesus before they could be baptized. A rudimentary form of such a creed at one of the first Christian baptisms can found in some manuscripts (cf. Acts 8:37). In Acts 8:37 Philip baptized the eunuch after the latter had professed his fait as follows: ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ In the course of time more and more elements were added to this primitive form of the creed. However, after the introduction of infant baptism the creed ceased to be part of the baptismal liturgy.

To conclude: Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition is an invaluable source of information concerning the practice of baptism in the first half of the third century. The regular practice was the baptism of adults having confessed their belief, but the text as we have it, also has a statement referring to very young probably also including infants. The Latin text is from the fourth century when infant baptism became a regular practice. If one insists however, that the Latin text does faithfully represent the lost Greek original, then one may say that in the third century the first traces of infant baptism occur, though the document still speaks of a fairly elaborate ceremony in which only adults or older children could participate. If we accept this document as an early reference to infant baptism it is important to notice that the baptism of these infants was not linked to the covenant or the rite of circumcision. It was still an event following upon a verbal confession of faith.”

H F. Stander and J P. Louw, Baptism in the early church p. 77-80

I would not have an issue therefore with Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition here which still seems a far-cry from contemporary paedobaptist beliefs and some attempt is made for the child to make profession and preparation of their own accord.

Origen (184 – 253 AD)

In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous

Homilies on Leviticus 8:3

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

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

Matthew alone adds the words “to repentance,” teaching that the benefit of baptism is connected with the intention of the baptized person; to him who repents it is salutary, but to him who comes to it without repentance it will turn to greater condemnation.  … Regeneration did not take place with John, but with Jesus through His disciples it does so, and what is called the laver of regeneration takes place with renewal of the Spirit; for the Spirit now comes in addition since it comes from God and is over and above the water and does not come to all after the water.  So far, then, our examination of the statements in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IX, Origen on John, Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book VI: Chapter 17

Origen comes next with a series of statements I have found in his works. The ones I have found all point towards the baptism of infants on the basis of cleansing the “stain” and as a means to achieve salvation, drawing explicitly on John 3:3 in one instance. To my mind this is worth comparing with Tertullian’s statements on the “innocent period of life”. Tertullian didn’t reject the idea of sins (Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?) but still considered a child innocent. Origen talks about sin, however, as a stain which is natural and necessitating forgiveness, presumably from birth. A tension seems to arise then here which seems to have no easy resolution but his statements are explicit regarding the baptism of infants.

When we consider Origen’s words, however, we should pause and consider if this is consistent with what we have been shown according to the Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus of Rome. The baptism of infants doesn’t mean a bifurcated baptism allowing for the option of escaping confession from the recipient. He also links the effectual nature of baptism “to repentance” and the intention of the baptised person, explicitly pointing out that the holy spirit “does not come to all after the water” presumably with repentance being the missing ingredient. Therefore even if we do see infants baptised to do so with repentance only condemns the child rather than saves it.

Finally, we note the claim that infant baptism was a practice of the church passed down from the apostles. We see no more context to this statement other than Origen’s assertion without which one must presumably fall back on the available material of the apostles in order to decide. Whether he means something closer to what Cyprian later wrote about or Hippolytus wrote about is unsure.

Cyprian of Carthage (200 – 258 AD)

As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born…

Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift. Elisha, beseeching God, so laid himself upon the infant son of the widow, who was lying dead, that his head was applied to his head, and his face to his face, and the limbs of Elisha were spread over and joined to each of the limbs of the child, and his feet to his feet. If this thing be considered with respect to the inequality of our birth and our body, an infant could not be made equal with a person grown up and mature, nor could its little limbs fit and be equal to the larger limbs of a man. But in that is expressed the divine and spiritual equality, that all men are like and equal, since they have once been made by God; and our age may have a difference in the increase of our bodies, according to the world, but not according to God; unless that very grace also which is given to the baptized is given either less or more, according to the age of the receivers, whereas the Holy Spirit is not given with measure, but by the love and mercy of the Father alike to all. For God, as He does not accept the person, so does not accept the age; since He shows Himself Father to all with well-weighed equality for the attainment of heavenly grace.

Letters 64:2, 3

For which reason we think that no one is to be hindered from obtaining grace by that law which was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision, but that absolutely every man is to be admitted to the grace of Christ, since Peter also in the Acts of the Apostles speaks, and says, The Lord has said to me that I should call no man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28) But if anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted — and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace— how much rather ought we 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.

Letters 64:5

And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat. We bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.

Letters 64:6

Cyprian is interesting in that he was based in Carthage, like Tertullian, but follows along several generations after his predecessor as we now enter the 3rd century. His statements also show emphatically the advocacy for the baptism of the newborn child in order to purge him of “that old death from his first being born”. The letter in its entirety possesses great care and consideration for children and their innocent nature. He also seems to breeze between the distinction of the repentant ‘mature’ sinner and the innocent child. Despite acknowledging the innocent child’s need for cleansing and the mature sinner’s need for cleansing and repentance.

What goes entirely unspoken is the disposition of the child showing that the act is effectual regardless of the disposition of the child. We know this because Cyprian doesn’t bracket what kind of children are to be baptised only that it should be available to all. Cyprian points out the mature person’s need for repentance and all that entails but also see’s baptism requisite even when repentance isn’t required in the case of the innocent newborn (has not sinned, except … born after the flesh). In this case, baptism is a form of vaccination or insurance that bears merit to Cyprian entirely separate, although also beneficial, to the purposes of repentance and trusting in Christ for those able.

His writing also ticks the boxes of many later Reformed writers in that it draws on circumcision. Cyprian however clearly views baptism as a means to obtain the spiritual circumcision or circumcision of the heart we see in Deuteronomy 30:6. My language was perhaps crude but in my last post, I referred to this as a means of gaming the process by which we become children of the promise that Paul uses to describe Abraham’s descendants. To my mind, this is the clearest argument for paedobaptism we have in the Fathers despite it being an ex opere operato form that many Protestants would baulk at. Cyprian goes further than Origen who at least explicitly attached repentance to baptism. Cyprian disconnects the will entirely from the efficacy of baptism (and regeneration) in favour of a more seemingly mechanical understanding of the act.

On Rebaptism (3rd century)

And thus, as our salvation is founded in the baptism of the Spirit, which for the most part is associated with the baptism of water, if indeed baptism shall be given by us, let it be conferred in its integrity and with solemnity, and with all those means which are written; and let it be administered without any disconnection of anything. Or if, by the necessity of the case, it should be administered by an inferior cleric, let us wait for the result, that it may either be supplied by us, or reserved to be supplied by the Lord. If, however, it should have been administered by strangers, let this matter be amended as it can and as it allows. Because outside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, sound faith moreover cannot exist, not alone among heretics, but even among those who are established in schism. And for that reason, they who repent and are amended by the doctrine of the truth, and by their own faith, which subsequently has been improved by the purification of their heart, ought to be aided only by spiritual baptism, that is, by the imposition of the bishop’s hands, and by the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the perfect seal of faith has been rightly accustomed to be given in this manner and on this principle in the Church. So that the invocation of the name of Jesus, which cannot be done away, may not seem to be held in disesteem by us; which assuredly is not fitting; although such an invocation, if none of those things of which we have spoken should follow it, may fail and be deprived of the effect of salvation. For when the apostle said that there was one baptism, (Ephesians 4:5) it must needs have been by the continued effect of the invocation of the name of Jesus, because, once invoked, it cannot be taken away by any man, even although we might venture, against the decision of the apostles, to repeat it by giving too much, yea, by the desire of superadding baptism. If he who returns to the Church be unwilling again to be baptized, the result will be that we may defraud him of the baptism of the Spirit, whom we think we must not defraud of the baptism of water.

Chapter 10

So that the same Spirit is, moreover, sometimes found to be upon those who are unworthy of Him; not certainly in vain or without reason, but for the sake of some needful operation; as He was upon Saul, upon whom came the Spirit of God, and he prophesied. However, in later days, after the Spirit of the Lord departed from him, and after a malign spirit from the Lord vexed him, because then he had come, after the messengers whom he had previously sent before with care, with intent to kill David; and they therefore fell into the chorus of the prophets, and they prophesied, so that they neither were able nor willing to do what they had been bidden. And we believe that the Spirit which was upon them all effected this with an admirable wisdom, by the will of God. Which Spirit also filled John the Baptist even from his mother’s womb; and it fell upon those who were with Cornelius the centurion before they were baptized with water. Thus, cleaving to the baptism of men, the Holy Spirit either goes before or follows it; or failing the baptism of water, it falls upon those who believe. We are counselled that either we ought duly to maintain the integrity of baptism, or if by chance baptism is given by any one in the name of Jesus Christ, we ought to supplement it, guarding the most holy invocation of the name of Jesus Christ, as we have most abundantly set forth; guarding, moreover, the custom and authority which so much claim our veneration for so long a time and for such great men.

Chapter 14

The anonymous tract “On Rebaptism” emerged from North Africa during the time of debate between the aforementioned Cyprian and Stephen then Bishop of Rome. I quote from “On Rebaptism” because we don’t have much in the way of Stephen’s writings available on the debate. The debate itself, as per the title, was on the topic of Rebaptism. Cyprian had written strongly against the idea that the baptism of heretical groups like the Novations was valid so heretics returning to the church must be rebaptised. Prior baptisms weren’t actually baptisms as heretics were devoid of the holy spirit and thus unable to baptise. Stephen by contrast drew a distinction between baptism by water and baptism by the spirit. Asserting that whilst baptism was the ordinary means of receiving the holy spirit it was not limited by baptism and that the name of Jesus was efficacious to save even if the baptiser, and the recipient were in error.

Cyprian and the Council of Carthage of 256 AD rejected Stephen’s judgement. Their view being held by representatives of the Eastern Church who considered Stephen’s view to potentially excommunicate Cyprian and his followers over this an overreach in authority on a topic he was in error. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia wrote to Cyprian depicting Stephen’s view as “Heretical baptism can produce remission of sins and the second birth, even though they admit themselves that heretics do not have the Holy Spirit” and that by doing so showed preference for “custom which they seem to oppose to the truth”. Firmillian instead believing that the holy spirit, and the name of Jesus/Christ was only effectual in the church, even if the heretics used the same baptismal formulae. Firmillian actually invoking the analogy of a walled garden for the church compared to Stephen’s more ‘open source’ view on the efficacy of baptism.

I mention the above, which is but a cursory introduction, to point out the view of the holy spirit in the roll of baptism and the contention therein. Cyprian and his followers expressly linked baptism to saving faith, that the baptism of water was also the baptism of the spirit. Stephen represented a position that was open to the idea that the baptism of water wasn’t always a baptism of the spirit and that the spirit could operate even in those found in error by virtue of “personal faith and disposition”. Something Cyprian’s camp, via Firmilian’s pen, considered “ridiculous in itself.” Stephen by contrast is recorded in Eusebius’s histories of the church as going as far as refusing communion to churches who allied with Cyprian. Both camps accused the other of ‘rebaptising’ by their own definition.

Eusebius later notes that in subsequent generations this issue hadn’t gone away. Stephen’s successor Sixtus had to deal with a similar situation raised by the Bishop of Alexandria, a man called Dionysius. Dionysius upheld the view of a number of eastern councils that heretics had to be rebaptised, arguing that this wasn’t an innovation, and therefore no second baptism. However he later writes…

For truly, brother, I am in need of counsel, and I ask your judgment concerning a certain matter which has come to me, fearing that I may be in error.

For one of the brethren that assemble, who has long been considered a believer, and who, before my ordination, and I think before the appointment of the blessed Heraclas, was a member of the congregation, was present with those who were recently baptized. And when he heard the questions and answers, he came to me weeping, and bewailing himself; and falling at my feet he acknowledged and protested that the baptism with which he had been baptized among the heretics was not of this character, nor in any respect like this, because it was full of impiety and blasphemy.

And he said that his soul was now pierced with sorrow, and that he had not confidence to lift his eyes to God, because he had set out from those impious words and deeds. And on this account he besought that he might receive this most perfect purification, and reception and grace.

But I did not dare to do this; and said that his long communion was sufficient for this. For I should not dare to renew from the beginning one who had heard the giving of thanks and joined in repeating the Amen; who had stood by the table and had stretched forth his hands to receive the blessed food; and who had received it, and partaken for a long while of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But I exhorted him to be of good courage, and to approach the partaking of the saints with firm faith and good hope.

But he does not cease lamenting, and he shudders to approach the table, and scarcely, though entreated, does he dare to be present at the prayers.

Eusebius, Church History. Chapter 7:9

Despite initially articulating a position in accord with Cyprian Dionysius, when confronted with the pastoral reality of the situation, now adopts a position more in accord with that of Sixtus’s predecessor Stephen. Sixtus himself later responded, based on letters we have available, that a baptism in the name of the trinity was valid, only needing reconciliation under reception into the church but baptism by any other name was to be replaced with a baptism of the trinity. Dionysius agreed with this view citing the great commission. This seems indicative that whilst Cyprian’s view was initially perhaps more popular Stephen was to be validated by their successors.

Cyril of Jerusalem (319 – 386 AD)

Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver : he was baptized, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him. Now I mention the statements of (men’s) falls, that you may not fall: for these things happened to them by way of example, and they are written for the admonition of those who to this day draw near. Let none of you be found tempting His grace, lest any root of bitterness spring up and trouble you. Let none of you enter saying, Let us see what the faithful are doing: let me go in and see, that I may learn what is being done. Do you expect to see, and not expect to be seen? And do you think that while you are searching out what is going on, God is not searching your heart?

Procatechesis 2

Take heed lest without reason you mistrust the power of repentance. Would you know what power repentance has? Would you know the strong weapon of salvation, and learn what the force of confession is? Hezekiah by means of confession routed a hundred and fourscore and five thousand of his enemies. A great thing verily was this, but still small in comparison with what remains to be told: the same king by repentance obtained the recall of a divine sentence which had already gone forth. For when he had fallen sick, Esaias said to him, Set your house in order; for you shall die, and not live. (2 Kings 20:1) What expectation remained, what hope of recovery, when the Prophet said, for you shall die? Yet Hezekiah did not desist from repentance; but remembering what is written, When you shall turn and lament, then shall you be saved (Isaiah 30:15), he turned to the wall, and from his bed lifting his mind to heaven (for thickness of walls is no hindrance to prayers sent up with devotion), he said, Remember me, O Lord, for it is sufficient for my healing that You remember me. You are not subject to times, but art Yourself the giver of the law of life. For our life depends not on a nativity, nor on a conjunction of stars, as some idly talk; but both of life and its duration. Then art Yourself the Lawgiver according to Your Will. And he, who could not hope to live because of the prophetic sentence, had fifteen years added to his life, and for the sign the sun ran backward in his course. Well then, for Ezekias’ sake the sun turned back but for Christ the sun was eclipsed, not retracing his steps, but suffering eclipse (Isaiah 38:8), and therefore showing the difference between them, I mean between Ezekias and Jesus. The former prevailed to the cancelling of God’s decree, and cannot Jesus grant remission of sins? Turn and bewail yourself, shut your door, and pray to be forgiven, pray that He may remove from you the burning flames. For confession has power to quench even fire, power to tame even lions.

Catechetical Lecture 2:15

Guard yourself then, O man; you have the signs of Antichrist; and remember them not only yourself, but impart them also freely to all. If you have a child according to the flesh, admonish him of this now; if you have begotten one through catechizing , put him also on his guard, lest he receive the false one as the True. For the mystery of iniquity does already work. (2 Thessalonians 2:7) I fear these wars of the nations ; I fear the schisms of the Churches; I fear the mutual hatred of the brethren. But enough on this subject; only God forbid that it should be fulfilled in our days; nevertheless, let us be on our guard. And thus much concerning Antichrist.

Catechetical Lecture 15:18

After this you say, and all your service.  Now the service of the devil is prayer in idol temples; things done in honour of lifeless idols; the lighting of lamps, or burning of incense by fountains or rivers, as some persons cheated by dreams or by evil spirits do [resort to this ], thinking to find a cure even for their bodily ailments. Go not after such things. The watching of birds, divination, omens, or amulets, or charms written on leaves, sorceries, or other evil arts , and all such things, are services of the devil; therefore shun them. For if after renouncing Satan and associating yourself with Christ , thou fall under their influence, you shall find the tyrant more bitter; perchance, because he treated you of old as his own, and relieved you from his hard bondage, but has now been greatly exasperated by you; so you will be bereaved of Christ, and have experience of the other. Have you not heard the old history which tells us of Lot and his daughters? Was not he himself saved with his daughters, when he had gained the mountain, while his wife became a pillar of salt, set up as a monument for ever, in remembrance of her depraved will and her turning back. Take heed therefore to yourself, and turn not again to what is behind, having put your hand to the plough, and then turning back to the salt savour of this life’s doings; but escape to the mountain, to Jesus Christ, that stone hewn without hands Daniel 2:35, 45, which has filled the world.

Catechetical Lecture 19:8

Let no one then suppose that Baptism is merely the grace of remission of sins, or further, that of adoption; as John’s was a baptism conferring only remission of sins: whereas we know full well, that as it purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ. For this cause Paul just now cried aloud and said, Or are you ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus, were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into His death. These words he spoke to some who were disposed to think that Baptism ministers to us the remission of sins, and adoption, but has not further the fellowship also, by representation, of Christ’s true sufferings.

Catechetical Lecture 20:9

We are lucky to have an extensive series of Catechetical lectures available to us by Cyril of Jerusalem. These detail at length the process by which those who have come to faith (illuminated) but not yet baptised (Christian) make the transition from the former to the latter. The subject of repentance is a recurring theme throughout the piece as is the emphasis on a strong confession that moves not just the lips but compelled the heart to enjoin it. We also see these themes echoed, in a less systematic way, in the writings of John Chrysostom of Antioch and later Constantinople. The idea of a baptism present without suitable confession and repentance is only ever raised as a source of condemnation for the individual concerned.

In addition to repentance and confession, there is an extensive emphasis on exorcism and purification. The former being part of the latter which was requisite to prepare oneself for baptism. I will keep it short but participants were instructed to face West and rebuke the devil, and all his deeds and associations (a list mirroring in many ways that given by Tertullian and the Apostolic Tradition) before turning East to accept Christ. When they turned East the state “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance.”

Subjects were then brought into the main body of the church, for previously they had been on the outer chambers. This was representative of Hebrew priests entering the holiest of holies in the Temple. Catechumens were subsequently anointed with oil as a sealing before proceeding to be baptised in a pool without clothing. They were subsequently immersed three times after confessing to believe in each member of the Trinity. After their immersion, they were clothed in white and given communion. This would end a 40 day preparatory fast undertaken by the catechumens. In all of this, there is nothing stopping anyone of any age participating but no exception or contingency for those who might be considered newborn being able to participate via the benefit of a sponsor.

Egeria, a pilgrim who’s journal survives to this day recalls that many of the baptisms undertaken today were done in the same places in which John the Baptist conducted his baptisms. Cyril himself would have likely conducted his baptisms in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself lending the teaching of being baptised into Christ a very visceral component. She noted that the newly baptised were referred to as children, but that this had no reference to their actual age but rather status as new Christians.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – 390 AD)

Are you young? Stand against your passions; be numbered with the alliance in the army of God: do valiantly against Goliath. (1 Samuel 17:32) Take your thousands or your myriads; thus enjoy your manhood; but do not allow your youth to be withered, being killed by the imperfection of your faith. Are you old and near the predestined necessity? Aid your few remaining days. Entrust the purification to your old age. Why do you fear youthful passion in deep old age and at your last breath? Or will you wait to be washed till you are dead, and not so much the object of pity as of dislike? Are you regretting the dregs of pleasure, being yourself in the dregs of life? It is a shameful thing to be past indeed the flower of your age, but not past your wickedness; but either to be involved in it still, or at least to seem so by delaying your purification. Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Fearest thou the Seal on account of the weakness of nature? O what a small-souled mother, and of how little faith! Why, Anna even before Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:10) promised him to God, and after his birth consecrated him at once, and brought him up in the priestly habit, not fearing anything in human nature, but trusting in God. You have no need of amulets or incantations, with which the Devil also comes in, stealing worship from God for himself in the minds of vainer men. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Guard.

On Baptism, Oration 40:7

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 to baptize 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 the doorposts, (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, when reason 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.

On Baptism, Oration 40:28

A century later we see Gregory of Nazianzus encouraging this audience to come forward for baptism. Reading it, to me, I imagine something akin to an altar call by the way he speaks. It also strikes me that, going by the way he frames his preaching that his audience likely has a decent number of people who aren’t baptised in the congregation.

A high proportion of unbaptised individuals isn’t surprising in an increasingly Christian society when we consider the fact that Gregory himself wasn’t baptised in his 30s despite his father being a bishop and was instead consciously dedicated by his mother as a newborn. It was also put by some biographers that his baptism only took place when confronted with the risk of death after surviving a shipwreck. This was initially a surprise to me but it turns out that a decent number of notable fathers. (My favourite example being Ambrose of Milan) weren’t baptised till later in life, even if they subsequently went on to advocate for the baptism of those significantly younger than they were when they experienced it. The reasoning for such a practice, to me, seems linked to an idea relating to “the weighty import of baptism” in the words of Tertullian and perhaps a “fear (of) its reception more than its delay”. That sin after baptism was hard to receive forgiveness for since one could not be baptised again. This arguably explains why many during this period, the most famous arguably being Constantine the Great, was baptised upon late in life or upon their death-bed despite claiming to profess Christ many years previously. As mentioned we perhaps see evidence for the thinking that leads to this view in the writings of Clement.

Regarding the above Orations, it is notable that despite Gregory’s admonition to come forward for baptism as soon as possible yet we also see a caveat. The baptism of newborns is to be proceeded in the event of the likelihood of death considering it “better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated” which subtly acknowledges the fact that a baptism of the unconsciously aware is not normative but an intervention of sorts. Gregory then continues saying “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”. He subsequently gives a response which engages with the criticisms of paedobaptists who say it is impossible to rightly discern the ‘right time’ for baptism amongst those coming of age..

“…at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason 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.”

Which seems to say that baptism is useful even if not comprehensively understood, only that it be understood in some measure. This seems to speak comprehensively to the criticism of Reformed Paedobaptist scholars like Herman Bavinck who wrote…

“Those who want absolute certainty [concerning election and faith] can never dispense any sacrament”

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4:526

Despite Gregory’s encouragement to allow some period to pass such that “they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament”. Again what we see here in Gregory’s writing, and his own life, upsets the clean lines of paedobaptist and credobaptist doctrines even in the 4th century. We also see permission for the baptism of newborns framed as a pastoral measure which echoes the conditions which lead to Gregory’s own baptism. A realisation of the reality regarding the unexpected and sudden nature of death anticipated many seeking baptism ahead of time in order to secure their loved ones should the worst happen.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD)

But the sacrament of baptism is undoubtedly the sacrament of regeneration: Wherefore, as the man who has never lived cannot die, and he who has never died cannot rise again, so he who has never been born cannot be born again. From which the conclusion arises, that no one who has not been born could possibly have been born again in his father. Born again, however, a man must be, after he has been born; because, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ Even an infant, therefore, must be imbued with the sacrament of regeneration, lest without it his would be an unhappy exit out of this life; and this baptism is not administered except for the remission of sins. And so much does Christ show us in this very passage; for when asked, How could such things be? He reminded His questioner of what Moses did when he lifted up the serpent. Inasmuch, then, as infants are by the sacrament of baptism conformed to the death of Christ, it must be admitted that they are also freed from the serpent’s poisonous bite, unless we willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith. This bite, however, they did not receive in their own actual life, but in him on whom the wound was primarily inflicted.

On Forgiveness of Sin, and Baptism, 43:27

Augustine during his life had written several times with reference to the baptism of infants but I think this passage is one of the best examples of his views. He also, elsewhere, explicitly affirms the writings of Cyprian a century beforehand on this topic concerning the timing of baptism as ideally instantaneous.

Augustine in this excerpt articulates a view of baptism bestowing regeneration and yet that it is possible to subsequently fall into Satan’s clutches if we “willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith.” Here baptism is seen explicitly as an ex opere operato treatment for the remission of sins, which include that of Adam which we all suffer from (“this baptism is not administered except for the remission of sins”). This is original sin and baptism here is presented as a vaccination against it. An analogy I’ve heard advocates adopt today on the topic, that and the idea of insurance. Baptism in this light is an act itself that is effectual regardless of the disposition of the individual but that is presumably rendered subsequently ineffectual should the person concerned “willfully wander from the rule of the Christian faith” or in the words of Clement failing to keep our baptism “holy and undefiled”. So our will isn’t involved in salvation but it is involved in our damnation, which is possible even if baptised.

Having said all the above, it does seem possible to reconcile Augustine’s statements on the topic to that of Tertullian by means of using Gregory of Nazianzus as a bridge. Doing so rests on “lest without it his would be an unhappy exit out of this life” which we might pair with Gregory’s…

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 to baptize 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.

On Baptism, Oration 40:28

So the danger of death is seen as the instigating event by which baptism be administered amongst those not conscious, as a form of insurance or vaccination. We may join with Cyprian’s belief that “the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” and finally Tertullian’s “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay” highlighting that should a child live through the danger presented a greater pressure is present upon them not to mar the baptism they received earlier in life. Particularly if we consider Origen’s words on receiving baptism “without repentance it will turn to greater condemnation”.

So does one uphold the baptism administered shortly after birth by ongoing repentance later in life? Commentators preceding Augustine (and Cyprian) seem to indicate that the order is confused here but are silent on practices that don’t uphold the ideal they outline. Other commentators, like Cyprian and Augustine, seem more pliable on the timing of baptism but hold a view that introduces what I have previously called a bifurcated vision of the act. This means that one way someone is baptised is when they trust, repent, fast, confess and be baptised. Another way is that the act itself is operative without confessing faith, or by some mode of sponsorship. Baptism of newborns, which seems to get more developed as the centuries role on, seems independently effectual regardless of the child. For anyone else it is only effectual when sustained by trust in, obedience to and love of God. Therefore, for anyone baptised as newborns, at some indeterminable point, must inevitably make the transition to trust in, obey and love God when able. The question I guess is, how many go on to do that?

Side note

In reading around on this more generally I have seen no shortage of articles online stressing the urgency of baptism, particularly by Roman Catholics. I read these articles only to find in the comments parents who still mourn the death of their child who died before the priest could arrive and deliver baptism. If we echo the desire of Cyprian for all to have access to God’s grace it escapes me how God could condemn innocents, taken without warning, and deprived of baptism because of the slow action of priests or parents. On the other hand I think of my lapsed or apostate Roman Catholic colleagues and can’t help but wonder, writing this, might it have been better for them to die after baptism such that they wouldn’t go on to forsake it using the reasoning of their former tradition. It also seems to be only different to Jewish circumcision to a superficial degree with regard to salvation, one that was apparently rebuked by John the Baptist for being devoid of repentance despite their seeming piety.

I also think there is a temptation here to paint those who come to different views on the matter as somehow not desiring for all to have access to God’s grace, especially little children. That is emphatically not the case in my experience. Yet it seems a perennial temptation for those of one position to utilise this claim against those who believe differently to themselves.

Additional considerations

Emergency baptism

Everett Ferguson in his work “Baptism in the Early Church” goes to some length to show the material impact of baptismal practices concerning children who unfortunately died before their time. He does this by providing translations of inscriptions found on funerary monuments within the catacombs of the early church. This provides a powerful and touching insight into the beliefs of early Christians on the topic of baptism. I will now post a number with brief commentary under each.

3rd century

Pastor, Titiana, Marciana, and Chreste made this for Marcianus, a well-deserving son in Christ the Lord. He lived twelve years, two months, and . . . days. He received grace on September 20 when the consuls were Marinianus and Paternus the second time. He gave up (his soul) on September 21. May you live among the saints in eternity.

Marcianus was twelve when he died his epithet denoting that he received his baptism on the day before his death. It is also indicative that his family, whilst believing, had not undertaken to have him baptised as a newborn. A pattern we see repeated with other children.

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. Irene, who lived with her parents eleven months and six days, received (grace) on April 7 and gave up (her soul) on April 13.

Tyche and Irene were both infants when they died, but in both instances we see a baptism (I assume) just before their death. In the case of Tyche on the same day. Whilst this is the closest we have to contemporary paedobaptism the pattern we see emerging is baptism in proximity to death amongst infants, not birth.

Sacred to the divine dead. Florentius made this monument for his well-deserving 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.

Appronianus, it is detailed, was baptised at the request of his grandmother and by permission of his father by the church. This is interesting in that the baptism seems to come not by the insistence of the church but of a relative. This points to conduct distinctly different from contemporary paedobaptist traditions.

4th century

Her parents set this up for Julia Florentina, their dearest and most innocent infant who was made a believer. She was born a pagan on the day before the nones of March before dawn when Zoilus was a censor of the province. She lived eighteen months and twenty-two days and was made a believer in the eighth hour of the night, almost drawing her last breath. She survived four more hours so that she entered again on the customary things [eucharist placed in her mouth?]. She died at Hybla in the first hour of the day on September 25. . . .

Julia is interesting in that it is mentioned she was born a pagan. Presumably her family in the proceeding eighteen months had then become Christians. If this followed the paedobaptist readings of household conversions Julia would have been baptised sometime before the night of her death.

It is also worth noting the language of being “made a believer” pointing both to the role of baptism in such a process. The other thing to note was that with the time she had left she was subsequently granted communion denoting no separation of the two sacraments. Something uncommon in contemporary paedobaptist traditions.

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 eleventh of July on the day of Jupiter on which he was born. His soul is with the saints in peace. Felicissimus, Eutheria, and Gesta his grandmother, for their worthy son Postumius.


Postumius is another example of a child who was baptised in proximity not to birth but to his death. He was also born to a Christian family but despite this lived the majority of his life unbaptised until the reality of his death drew near.

In the consulship of Ursus and Polemius the girl named Felite, more or less thirty years old, obtained (grace) on March 26 and died in peace after April 29 on the day of Mercury at the ninth hour.


Felite wasn’t a child when she died, she was 30, and received baptism a month before her death. The proximity to death is what makes her case consistent with the aforementioned children. She might have been a convert, she might have been born into the church but a baptism so late in life and so close to death points to the significance of the act of baptism to the early church in relation to the recipients place in the afterlife.

Here is laid Fortunia, who lived more or less four years. The parents set this up for their dearest daughter. She obtained (grace) on July 27 . . . and died on July 25 [sic — the workman perhaps exchanged the dates]. Gratian for the second time and Probus were the consuls.


Fortunia was a child, like those listed, born to Christian parents but baptised, instead of at birth, in proximity to her death. It is worth noting that all of these children would have likely participated in the same liturgy undertaken by adults during the baptism itself.

For the well-deserving Antonia Cyriaceti, who lived nineteen years, two months, twenty-six days. Received (the grace) of God and died a virgin on the fourth day. Julius Benedictus her father set this up for his sweet and incomparable daughter. November 20.


Antonia died at the age of nineteen and was baptised, having not been baptised previously, despite having a apparently believing father several days before her death. John Chrysostom was baptised at a similar age (18) did so upon entering the service of the church. Antonia however follows the apparent pattern of putting off baptism until death drew near.

For Flavia, dearest infant, who with sound mind obtained the grace of the glorious font on Easter day and survived after holy baptism five months. She lived three years, ten months, seven days. The parents, Flavian and Archelaius, for their pious daughter. Burial on the eighteenth of August.


Flavia, despite being only 3, is described as having been baptised ‘with sound mind’ suggesting she was participative and compos mentis during her reception of it. This means she likely participated in the baptismal liturgy like an adult. Described as pious she sounds like someone who matched the description of a worthy recipient of baptism regardless of her age.

A three-year-old girl is the subject of an epitaph from Macedonia. The parents’ grief is comforted through Christ, who gave her from an eternal spring the life of heavenly beings. The spring is the fount of baptism that brings salvation. Another inscription, possibly third century, is less explicit about the baptismal status of the child: Here lies an infant bereft of an ordinary life, the father’s pleasantness and the mother’s comeliness, their firstborn, two years old, an object of God’s care, pleasant child of sunshine. Grieving, you gave birth to the sweet and gentle. Child of God.

I find the descriptions of the children interesting much is made of their innocence, the second memorial doesn’t actually reference that baptism of the child forcing us to speculate whether or not this child actually received it or not. If not would the language had been different?

Flavius Aurelius, son of Leo, marvellously endowed with the innocence of generous goodness and industry, who lived six years, eight months, eleven days. A neophyte, he rested (in peace) on July 2 in the consulship of Julius Philip and Sallias


Flavius despite being six years old doesn’t have his baptism stated. Instead, he is called a neophyte suggesting his conversion, and presumed baptism again came in close proximity to his death.

For the well-deserving Perpetuus in peace, who lived more or less thirty years. . . . Buried April 13, died a neophyte. . .


Neophytes could be older or younger, the title could have been analogous to that of describing a newly baptised catechumen.

For Proiectus, an infant neophyte, who lived two years, seven months.


Proiectus was one of the younger neophytes. It is telling that the age is not the consistent factor in these descriptions, rather their status as a new convert. Proiectus was unlikely to be a convert at this age and so again the proximity to death was likely a contributing factor in the baptism since it wasn’t given in immediate proximity to birth.

For the well-deserving Eugenia of happy memory who lived not nineteen years, a neophyte.


Eugenia was another recent convert. The pattern here all denoting the significance of conversion (and baptism) in regard to death.

Achillia, a neophyte, fell asleep in her first year, fifth month, on February 24.

Neophyte we see here is being used in a way synonymous with the ‘obtaining grace’ of prior centuries.

Here lies Macaria, daughter of John of the village Nikeratos. She lived three years, three months, sixteen days. She died a believer on the twenty-fourth of the month Sandikou in the eleventh consulship of Honorius Augustus and the second of Constantius.

Macaria could have been baptised at birth, no details are given, yet with all of these, we establish there is no routine for the time of baptism. Rather that baptism, if detailed, came in proximity to death.

Here lies the body of a boy to be named. O blessed boy, the earth held you for a few days, An infant, and sent you back to the heavenly kingdom. You were born only so that you might attain to rebirth.


This boy died at a time, and in the city, from which Augustine hailed. Ferguson notes no reference to original sin but that there is a considerable weight attached to ‘rebirth’ or baptism. This was a baptism of a newborn, but it was also an emergency baptism. What brought it on? Judging by precedent the little boy was not expected to live long.


I shall turn to that highest authority of our seal itself. When entering the water, we make profession of the Christian faith in the words of its rule; we bear public testimony that we have renounced the devil, his pomp, and his angels. Well, is it not in connection with idolatry, above all, that you have the devil with his pomp and his angels? From which, to speak briefly — for I do not wish to dilate — you have every unclean and wicked spirit. If, therefore, it shall be made plain that the entire apparatus of the shows is based upon idolatry, beyond all doubt that will carry with it the conclusion that our renunciatory testimony in the laver of baptism has reference to the shows, which, through their idolatry, have been given over to the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. We shall set forth, then, their several origins, in what nursing-places they have grown to manhood; next the titles of some of them, by what names they are called; then their apparatus, with what superstitions they are observed; (then their places, to what patrons they are dedicated;) then the arts which minister to them, to what authors they are traced. If any of these shall be found to have had no connection with an idol-god, it will be held as free at once from the taint of idolatry, and as not coming within the range of our baptismal abjuration.

Tertullian, The Shows. Chapter 4

So, too, the interdiction of murder shows me that a trainer of gladiators also is excluded from the Church; nor will any one fail to be the means of doing what he subministers to another to do. Behold, here is a more kindred fore-judgment: if a purveyor of the public victims come over to the faith, will you permit him to remain permanently in that trade? Or if one who is already a believer shall have undertaken that business, will you think that he is to be retained in the Church? No, I take it

Tertullian, On Idolatry. Chapter 11. Connection Between Covetousness and Idolatry. Certain Trades, However Gainful, to Be Avoided

They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are brought forward for instruction. If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected…

Catechumens will hear the word for three years. Yet if someone is earnest and perseveres well in the matter, it is not the time that is judged, but the conduct.

Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition. Chapter 16-17

The Christians, however, having previously, so far as possible, tested the souls of those who wish to become their hearers, and having previously instructed them in private, when they appear (before entering the community) to have sufficiently evinced their desire towards a virtuous life, introduce them then, and not before, privately forming one class of those who are beginners, and are receiving admission, but who have not yet obtained the mark of complete purification; and another of those who have manifested to the best of their ability their intention to desire no other things than are approved by Christians; and among these there are certain persons appointed to make inquiries regarding the lives and behaviour of those who join them, in order that they may prevent those who commit acts of infamy from coming into their public assembly, while those of a different character they receive with their whole heart, in order that they may daily make them better.

Origen, Against Celsus. Book 3:51

The witness of the early church is that before baptism it was normative for someone to be considered a catechumen for a period, the Apostolic Tradition states, of normally three years. This was a time for someone to learn about the faith, purify themselves and set aside anything considered objectionable by the Christian community they were about to enter. Lists of forbidden professions and practices denote the emphasis on adults. Some, reading the above, might be tempted to say such a process was not required for children in advance of baptism if their parents were believers. We have no advocate of the period however that states this and as a claim, it is, therefore, open to the accusation of being anachronistic. When Gregory of Nazianzus offers a period of three years, a little more or less, it is likely he offers this with reference to the Apostolic Traditions commendation for believers to be catechised for three years. This is the clearest explanation for this choice of words there. With the exception being a risk of imminent death we see no easy way to join the catechumenate to commonly accepted notions of infant baptism.

The catechism was introduced to ensure that those joining the church were sincere, I have heard objections from those who point to the Ethiopian eunuch, and others, as a justification for the optionality of catechism but we already see its advocates anticipating such comments by framing their conversions as the result of God’s providence in the bringing to faith of such people. In the case of the Eunuch and Cornelius, Tertullian explains, God had acted both by transporting Phillip, speaking to him, and giving Peter visions and the bestowing the Holy Spirit in advance of baptism on Cornelius’s believing household. The latter an argument advanced by Cyprian’s opponents, represented in my writings by Stephen of Rome and the Anonymous Tractarian, on the rebaptism debate of the third century. Catechism was, therefore, a normative prelude to baptism which was understood as the ordinary means of receiving grace and the holy spirit.

It seems inevitable that as infant baptism became normative, and boundaries between Church and broader Roman society became increasingly ephemeral, that the role of catechism began to decline. This lead to an inevitable shift in the predominant way in which baptism is understood, that being almost exclusively through the lens of infant baptism. It may be facetious to consider this understanding of baptism as a passport, or vaccination, enabling access to heaven but it was certainly access to the Christian society that was to exist for the subsequent millennia and a half. Albeit it was an access couched in terms increasingly different from the “choice and knowledge” Justin Martyr referred to, so many years ago, in his apologia to the pagans.


Ecclesial historian David F Wright, when reflecting on the patristic period, wrote “there is precious little evidence in patristic sources of services of baptism being tailored to suit the capacity of infant recipients” (What has Infant Baptism done to Baptism? p8) and “we cannot give the name of anyone before the fourth century, not in an emergency situation who was baptized as an infant.” (At What Age Were People Baptised in the Early Centuries? p389) I find, in my review of the above sources, we see this upheld. We also see liturgy that, to quote Peter Leithart “were constructed on something like Baptist assumptions, even when children were included” (The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism p258). We see baptism happening at a range of ages but predicated on active confessionalism on the part of the recipient. The exception, as we see in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus is “if any danger presses” and the proximity of baptism to the date of death given for many children and youth based on funerary monuments attests to this. On the idea of infant baptism as a normative procedure in the first centuries of the church historian Andrew McGowan writes…

The baptism of infants remains an uncertainty for the first and much of the second century; there is simply no evidence on which to base a definitive judgement. Adults were for many years to remain the normal, if not essentially sole recipients of baptism.

Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship. Initiation: Baptism, Anointing and Foot Washing

Baptism for the early church was the ordained, although not technically exclusive, means by which individuals receive the holy spirit and become partakers of Christ. The extent to which this dispensation was rooted in the orthodoxy of the church or granted to those baptised outside of it who had the appropriate personal faith and disposition was a matter of fierce debate. This was precisely because salvation was considered impossible without the cleansing of an individual from the impact of the fall and their subsequent sins by baptism into Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The pressing question was, therefore, where did the agency of the holy spirit reside? Regardless of the answer, it meant that baptism, therefore, was not withheld from any member of the church community in the event of impending mortality. Despite this, there was notable anxiety regarding the impact of post-baptismal sin which provided a pushback to the pull of an early baptism without due preparation. As a result, we see the emergence of at least two forms of baptism, with multiple modes therein, existing side by side in one communion whilst maintaining theology commending a formal confessionalism and catechetical emphasis reflected in liturgies available to us. Catechism being the normative prelude to baptism.

It is also important to note the different types of evidence presented to us. We have writings taking the form of sermons and letters but we also have biography and archaeology. From what we see in the sermons and letters available we see encouragement to either baptise babies or not to, we also have statements that can be subsequently interpreted either for or against the said positions. Yet the biography and archaeology on hand paint a picture presenting baptism either as an emergency measure or subject to confession. These, although not representative, give us a better idea of the reality many lived with. The fact that many leading Christians of the 4th century were raised in Christian homes yet not baptised till later in life raises questions over the apostolicity of the baptism of babies as is currently understood. That is that if such a practice is to be understood as apostolic, so is the postponement of baptism until an age wherein they might participate of their own volition. If the early church did believe baby baptism was mandated, it would follow that more notable Christians would have been baptised themselves as infants. As it is I have no recourse to any notable Christian during the period covered that was baptised in a fashion and timing palatable to contemporary paedobaptist tradition sensibilities. By contrast every Father, I am aware of, whom we have an account of their baptism had it done at an age in which they participated of their own volition.

Taking all the above into account whilst we cannot prove that anything recognisable as contemporary paedobaptism did not exist in the ancient church, for it is near impossible to prove a negative. However, we can equivocally state that it was not at this time a matter of dogma and not a universal practice but one that later became so.

What we have not covered is the impact of the prior faiths of converts and their surrounding cultures and it is likely that these informed baptismal practices as not necessarily an imitation but a response to pagan, Jewish and other Christian ideas around them. I say this given the variance in baptismal liturgy and practice visible across geography, culture and the process of time. A brief example of this is found in the life of Severus of Antioch, son of the Metropolitan of Sozopolis, who grew up in a community that did not baptise men until they could grow a beard even up until the late 5th and early 6th century yet suffered no sanction by other Christian communities.

Unity in diversity regarding theology is also visible in other areas. In particular, the controversies regarding the dating of Easter which despite differences did not contribute to the ceasing of communion between respective parties early on, a point raised by clergyman and church historian Socrates of Constantinople in the 5th century. That the dating of Easter subsequently went on to be one of the contributing factors between the discord even now persists between East and West seems indicative of the tendency within the church to centralise and dogmatise over time on issues that earlier Christians evidently found ways to work around.

To, therefore, point out, as some do, that a practice is apostolic, in this case, newborn baptism, if it is true is only a selective telling of the matter. Paedobaptism might have been recognisable to the apostles but we know of no time when it was the exclusive mode of baptism mandated before the 6th century by the universal church. The decision by parents to not baptise their child, but to raise them as such that they would later desire baptism for themselves has equal grounds for apostolicity and was arguably normative before the mid 5th century.

As Christianity continued to grow and consolidate the baptism of newborns became normative and universalised in the 5th and 6th century. It is my understanding that the baptism of newborns, historic albeit undogmatically exercised, subsequently became central to combating the view that man could contribute to his own salvation. This was because an infant could not be an active participant in their own baptism, yet it was historically practised by the church and seen as effectual. This justification for the baptism of newborns, whilst existing explicitly at a regional level since at least the 3rd century, was only progressively universalised in the 5th and 6th centuries and subsequently enforced. This lead to the universalising of newborn baptism, the erasure of notable distinctions between the church and broader society, and the subsequent decline of the catechumenate. The mandated baptism of newborns, now universalised, arguably became part of the foundation, and engine, for what is now colloquially known as Christendom.

The history of this period and baptism’s place in it is something I will explore in my next and penultimate section. It is my view, however, that the later dominance of infant baptism colours our reading of the earlier centuries leaving us unable to imagine a time, and a reason, for baptism being any different from commonly accepted understandings today. I hope what I have therefore presented of the early centuries goes some way in challenging, in an irenic way, these notions for those interested.

There is much more that could be said but I feel saying such will not add substantially to the core proposition outlined in this piece and in the interests of some semblance of brevity will draw a line under this entry here.

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

With the birth of my son, I have been thinking a lot about baptism. This has been intensified by a period of discerning whether or not I could, should, or would begin the process of discerning ordination in the Church of England. What follows is my attempt to come to terms with the beliefs of those around me and my own understanding of the subject during this period. It is in no way academic or comprehensive but serves as a way for me to somehow work through my thoughts on the matter.

I am a layman and haven’t studied this formally so please forgive any glaring errors or omissions, they are not intentional. I am painfully aware that the more one says the more one is likely to say something stupid, and I am saying a lot here on a subject that is not my expertise. So please forgive any stupidity you find.

My own experience

I was baptised at 16 into the Church of England into which I had been born. My parents came from different backgrounds but believed that I and my brother should be the ones, not them, to commit our lives to Christ when we were convicted of the Gospel and our lives as members of the Church. Growing up I was conscious of going forward for communion with my parents at a young age, to receive a blessing from our minister. I always remember feeling like it was deeply important, despite the informal setting, and the words the minister spoke I remember even now. Yet I was conscious that I wasn’t participating in communion and came to a place where I wanted to commit myself and follow Christ who commanded us to share in his body and blood.

My minister upon hearing my desire began a process of what I now understand to be the catechism. I would go to his house and have a series of long conversations and where we walked through questions regarding the faith and pray about this upcoming event. It wasn’t formal, my minister had known me for the better part of my life and was like family. Despite this, he wanted to make sure I actually knew what I was doing and if I fell short in knowledge could be corrected. We continued and at the next easter, I was baptised.

The baptism itself was at the main church in our parish, the bishop came down and I was baptised at the same time as other, younger, children were being confirmed. I was asked to give an account of my faith before the congregation and when it came to me the bishop and my minister stood me in a pool and by the name of the Trinity, and a profession of faith baptised me by immersion. Subsequently, those from my local church and those I knew in the parish were then asked to stand for me whilst I was subsequently prayed for. I still think about that day frequently and I consider it the moment I was, to use an evangelical phrase ‘born again’. My minister still keeps an interest in my faith even now.

My brother to this day, however, is not baptised and I realise, by the views of most Anglican clergy I’ve talked to, that they would ideally have seen both of us baptised at a much earlier age. I can’t deny this has raised questions over whether or not my baptism, and others like it, was viewed by those clergies aware of it as somehow second class, or that my parent’s decision was errant. Particular because I find this reasoning mirrored in the views I’ve heard expressed when talking about the idea of my son’s baptism and my voicing the view that I would hesitate to baptise a newborn should I have been ordained myself.

My own views have largely been that I am supportive of the parents to decide whatever they wish for their children but that my preference has always been for the child, or whomever, themselves to request and pursue baptism, whatever age they find themselves. I also wish that Churches would only baptise those who were actually regular and committed members of the local congregation. Something which isn’t really the case in many Church of England churches who will baptise seemingly indiscriminately. My own stumbling block was the idea of baptising newborns myself, I recognise such an act as valid but have personally seen little positive fruit come from such an act at an age where the person in question cannot recall or place themselves in the act. I think such a thing would bring judgement on myself before God if I was to theoretically baptise someone and then step away from any involvement in their life. Liturgy is meant to be embodied, it is to be experienced and isn’t an abstraction, but to a newborn isn’t it precisely that? Worse does it lend artificial security and a licence to antinomianism if conducted without suitable confession and repentance?

Through this process, my views have developed somewhat but I will save that for the end of this series.

On the effects of baptism

One of the topics that came up early on, particularly when talking or reading the works of those outside my own tradition is on what baptism exactly does. There is a good deal of theology behind this but the more informal conversation tended to focus more on questions like Do people baptised later in life take their faith more seriously? Does the infant who is baptised turn out a better disciple of Christ than those who aren’t?

The consensus I came to was that in, after trading anecdotes with a great many, I cannot say definitively one way or another. Baptism makes a difference to an individual but there is no discernible difference in the behaviour of people en masse regarding the timing of Baptism. It depends on the broader context, those around the person baptised and the providence of God himself.

My own experience as an Anglican, where many unchurched infants are still baptised at the unchurched parent’s request, was that I grew up amidst a great many peers who were baptised and took security from it when I was not. Yet I was the only one, of a small minority, who attended a church growing up. Later in life, at university, all the Christians I knew were credo-baptists, as were all the flourishing churches they attended. Paedobaptists, if they did exist, didn’t participate in the Christian intervarsity bodies present on campus. The Church of England and Roman Catholic churches were only, apparently, occupied by pensioners, barring one person I knew, and I don’t know what his views on baptism were. I say this having gotten the chance to know the local CoE parish quite well having done some work for them after graduation. The trend of me encountering paedobaptised ‘nones’ and credobaptised confessing Christians continued (and largely continues) until I started interacting with more Anglicans, and clergy, my own age after moving to London some years ago.

To counter the aforementioned I’ve heard is that the situation is very different in America where credobaptism is more prevalent. US paedobaptists have stressed to me that my own experiences of the UK paedobaptised can be mirrored in that of the US credobaptised. My own minister at my current parish confesses however that whatever you do it doesn’t seem to make much difference as an act itself practically, it is dependant on the context around them. Yet this doesn’t stop me engaging in counterfactuals; would my brother be a Christian today had he been baptised as an infant? Would I have fallen away or lapsed had I not been baptised of my own accord? God only knows. Much ink has been shed on this topic but any effect is hard to discern across traditions. I say this based on my now fairly frequent interactions with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants of many stripes on a fairly regular basis where I live now. Yet all parties acknowledge it to be important and whether one is advocating credo or paedo as a mode of baptism it is frequently asserted ‘yes’ it makes a difference albeit sometimes in distinct ways.

Baptism in scripture

Explanations and justifications for baptism inevitably arise from scripture. This is also a massive area itself but I will try and cover the sections of scripture that have been raised during this period. This will no doubt fail to be comprehensive but reflects my thinking on the various passages. These won’t be all passages on baptism, but ones I’ve had raised or encountered with a significance one way or another.

New Testament

John’s baptisms…

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ ”

Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”

Matthew 3:1-14

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.”

Acts 19:1-7

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

John 3:22-36

The first time we see baptism as something compelled is early on in the gospels and is unsurprisingly practised by John the Baptist. From what we see here this baptism is linked explicitly to repentance as a means of salvation. This is also positioned in direct contrast to John’s claim against the Pharisees and Sadducees as those seeing themselves saved by means of their privilege as inheritors and participants in the Abrahamic covenant.

With John’s language of ‘fruit’ emerging from ‘trees’ in the above passage we also see as a pattern later taken up by Paul in Galatians but with reference to the signs of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is something John himself also refers to. Yet he points out that the Holy Spirit is not as something he baptises by but something Christ will do later on. This is something John didn’t see himself exempt from.

This wasn’t Christian baptism and John’s disciples later must be baptised into the Christian community. The baptism was one of repentance, as a result they did not receive the Holy Spirit and all that inevitably entails. Should this be used as a pattern for our own baptism? John saw a relationship between his baptism and that to be done by the Holy Spirit. So could we say John’s model of baptism was a prototype of that which was to come? I do not think that entirely unreasonable. The key difference we see, however, in the passage I’ve quoted in Acts above is that subsequent Christians were baptised into Christ. Something John himself was aware that even he had been in need of. We also see in John 3 that Jesus’s disciples were already baptising during the same period as John. John see’s no conflict with this, despite the envy his disciples feel given Jesus’s popularity. So John’s mission and baptism was not a precursor necessarily but a means of bringing people to repentance in order to point them to Christ. His ministry perhaps waned as Christ’s established itself, which was fine with John.

John himself concludes this discussion with his disciples with statements pointing to the trinitarian nature of God being expressed through Jesus’s ministry. Which points us in turn to the name of the Trinity by which we are to be baptised. Yet the emphasis on the direct repentance of the subject being baptised is something that has never gone away.


There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:1-8

To be ‘born again’ is a phrase I used to notice a lot amongst Christians before I moved to London. It is this passage in John that, more than any other, perhaps gives the foundation for it. What that means is its own topic but I think it is interesting that Jesus here talks about water and the spirit. Also that by using the image of birth it raises the question of choice. Do we choose when we are born? Either by flesh or by spirit? Yet in any case, it seems to allude to baptism by use of the term ‘water’ and that this is the means to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus asks ‘how?’ effectively ‘what agency must I exert in order to bring this about?’ Yet Jesus instead talks about the Spirit implying this is who determines who is born again rather than an individual’s will. This is some ways seems more sympathetic with paedobaptism but it does seem to necessitate an engagement of the will which fits very comfortably with a view that requires some form kind of confession by the subject.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares…

“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ””

Matthew 13:24-30

This passage was raised by a paedobaptist to me as indicative of the fact that the good and the bad are to be found in the visible body of the Church. That it is inevitable and can be evidenced by the many people mentioned in the Gospels and other NT texts who go astray despite receiving baptism. Its a form of argument against the view of baptism being a panacea for all wrongdoing or that the Church is entirely made up of the elect. In this they are correct but I think it a misnomer to say that therefore we shouldn’t worry so much about who we baptise, that the ability to baptise is an authority without responsibility. I can’t help but attaching such a reading to this discussion as comparable to adopting a laisez faire attitude on the subject on baptism which no tradition extends to adult baptism. Again suggesting the act is actually something functionally different to when an adult gets baptised, a bifurcation we don’t see anywhere else. Whatever our views and approach to baptism, it should be unified and done in the knowledge that baptism is in no way a solution to the existence of tares, or weeds, in the body, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discerning.

Let the little children come…

“Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.”

Matthew 19:13-15

This was one that was put in front of me early on as an argument for allowing infant baptism. The argument being that the believer should not withhold baptism from a child just as Jesus welcomed children which the disciples rebuked. My first reaction is that, if this was what the passage is about, I actually agree with this. The issue is I do not think this is about baptism and that I do not have an issue with children wishing to be baptised. What I find problematic are infants who cannot yet participate in any form. Newborns who cannot do what the children in the given passage details here.

This is also a passage I saw alluded to in Tertullian’s text ‘On Baptism’. The relevant segment reads…

“The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; 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! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Now many are quick to bracket anything of Tertullian says with the fact that he was later a schismatic and a montanist. These things are problematic for him, and using him as a guide, but I do wonder if in this case, such cautions are a means of playing the man rather than the ball. If I focus on the reasoning employed by Tertullian here, I find myself agreeing with it. Yet there is also a line here which warrants further exploration “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins” which I will return to later on as a matter of consideration.

For the promise is to you and to your children…

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Acts 2:38,39

These verses are brought out frequently in discussions pertaining to the timing of baptism. The question, however, is when children are to be baptised. Paedobaptists say often ‘as early as possible’ as an analogue to Jewish circumcision rites. ‘Credobaptists’ upon a profession of faith as a response to God’s circumcision of the heart in a believer.

In bringing up this passage I can’t help but be reminded of John’s rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees…

“…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

Matthew 3:9

By invoking Abraham we are reminded that his children were and are children of the promise, not children of the flesh. As Paul explains in Romans…

“But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Romans 8:6-13

We also see this echoed in the words of Jesus who when approached by his family responded…

“…He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?”  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:48-50

So when we see talk of children, this can extend to biological children but it is predicated on them being those who “does the will of My Father in heaven” according to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no qualifying age limit to this but baptism is seen inevitably as a response to the ‘promise’ and not the ‘flesh’. Paul’s invocation of Jacob and Esau seems particularly cutting here and I have thought about this passage a lot in the light of the relationship between myself and my own brother. If we baptise on the basis of biology alone, or the faith of another, this does not seem in keeping with the understanding of children revealed here.

Ananias and Sapphira…

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.

Acts 5:1-11

This passage was raised by paedobaptists a number of times to indicate that even if one is baptised this is no sure sign that they are regenerate. Other examples include Judas and Simon Magus. The argument generally is that we actually cannot tell who is regenerate other than by their conduct and even that is no guarantor. You cannot pick the regenerate man so easily out of the crowd. Therefore we shouldn’t concern ourselves with such things when considering baptism. This however again raised the question of the effectual nature of baptism, because one can read about it extensively but practically this seems to be impossible to effectually discern authoritatively. At least in the conversations, I have had on this topic. Of course, it is ultimately impossible to totally judge the character of those baptised, especially in advance but does that mean we shouldn’t endeavour? I will cover this later but the early church placed stringent guidelines before those about to be baptised implying there was at least an attempt. This is obviously not extended to newborns but practically this floats the idea that in praxis infant baptism and adult baptism can’t help but be different things given how differently the participants are treated in advance. Even if the theology claims to be the same in both cases, yet we don’t see such a bifurcation in scripture but a consistent standard applied to those baptised.

The Ethiopian eunuch…

So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”

Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”

And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

Acts 8:34-38

I was challenged by a paedobaptist on the basis of this passage that catechism is not required in advance of baptism. The problem I saw with framing the passage in this way was that we see a profession of faith in advance of the baptism. This is one where the clear binaries break down for me between credo and paedobaptism. A profession of faith always seems to anticipate baptism. This also happens to be commentated on in Tertullian’s writings on the subject…

“If Philip so easily baptized the chamberlain, let us reflect that a manifest and conspicuous evidence that the Lord deemed him worthy had been interposed. The Spirit had enjoined Philip to proceed to that road: the eunuch himself, too, was not found idle, nor as one who was suddenly seized with an eager desire to be baptized; but, after going up to the temple for prayer’s sake, being intently engaged on the divine Scripture, was thus suitably discovered — to whom God had, unasked, sent an apostle, which one, again, the Spirit bade adjoin himself to the chamberlain’s chariot. The Scripture which he was reading falls in opportunely with his faith: Philip, being requested, is taken to sit beside him; the Lord is pointed out; faith lingers not; water needs no waiting for; the work is completed, and the apostle snatched away. But Paul too was, in fact, ‘speedily’ baptized: for Simon, his host, speedily recognized him to be an appointed vessel of election. God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every petition 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.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Tertullian here seems to be essentially saying that discernment is meant to be exercised pertaining to the context and how God has led up to the moment in question. In both cases detailed Philip and Simon ‘recognised’ the recipients of baptism as those appointed to God. Now whilst we are not Ethiopian Eunuchs or Paul himself surely some measure of discernment may be exercised by those undertaking and carrying out baptism? Doesn’t the disposition of the subject have some measure of involvement? It seems so.

Just before moving on from this point, reading around on this passage, it turns out that the confession of faith on the part of the Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t universally appear in all available manuscripts. However, Irenaeus, writing around the same time as Tertullian in the 2nd century attests to its existence in his well-known text “Against Heresies” but this profession of faith is actually omitted from later manuscripts. Why is anyone’s guess but I’ve seen people speculate on the Ethiopians confession being a flashpoint for earlier debates on the topic of baptism without profession by the subject, as is the case with newborns?

Cornelius’s household…

Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”

Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all— that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Acts 10:30-48

Cornelius’s household, and others like his, I found were an almost foundational text on which arguments for the baptising of newborns are made. The idea being that Cornelius, Lydia, Stephanas, the Philippian Jailer and others had children in their households who were baptised at the same moment as the head of the household. This isn’t unreasonable and I find that acceptable. I don’t have an issue with children being baptised so much as those without a profession. Yet the text doesn’t qualify, it doesn’t mention children but it doesn’t exclude them so whilst its an argument from silence it is still an argument which we should look at.

If we are speaking specifically to this passage we can note that all those who were baptised began to “speak with tongues and magnify God”. This criteria for me seems an acceptable one for baptism given what Peter had previously experienced in the run-up to the household. If we once more consider Tertullian’s words “God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it” in this passage we see it amongst all who were baptised. This story, and those like it, are often framed in the context of the head of household’s conversion bringing about baptism but this isn’t the case in Cornelius’s household. They all responded by speaking tongues and magnifying God. A pattern we also see with the Jailer’s family in Acts 16:30-34 where Paul throughout the night tells the family of Jesus, whom they accept, before proceeding with baptism.

If we state there must be some level of maturity that is requisite for baptism, then that is clearly not true and we do not see this. Yet we do see the profession of belief in Jesus before baptism. Jesus himself tells people that far from saving households he is as likely to split them. In Matthew 10 we read…

For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:35-37

Jesus here explicitly invokes the term household as a site of division which affirms the agency of the individual in coming to Christ or rejecting him. We likewise see Paul talk, in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy…

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

1 Corinthians 7:14

When discussing this a paedobaptist peer pointed to this passage to argue that children are made holy by baptism. Whilst children ‘are’ made holy by baptism I’m not sure this is what is occurring in this context, at least not to the degree imagined. It is also worth noting that this passage serves to point out that the early church was familiar with mixed-faith households, so not everyone was baptised upon the conversion of a patriarch or dominant household member. So this passage in a sense upholds Our Lord’s warning about setting division amidst the household and also points to the individual nature of conversion.

What I understood of Paul’s writing here to suggests that an imputation, a form of spiritual osmosis, via the proximity of the believer in the household drawing family members towards Christ both via their witness but also the agency of the holy spirit in the believer. The work of the spirit isn’t decontextualised geographically but is at work in the homes, towns and nations in which believers are found providing a blessing for even for those who have not yet accepted Christ. This passage points to a form of the sanctification of the household separate from that of the world and a freedom from the pagan practices that surrounded them. John Chrysostom said on the passage…

“What then, is the Greek holy? Certainly not: for he said not, He is holy; but, He is sanctified in his wife. And this he said, not to signify that he is holy, but to deliver the woman as completely as possible from her fear and lead the man to desire the truth. For the uncleanness is not in the bodies wherein there is communion, but in the mind and the thoughts. And here follows the proof; namely, that if you continuing unclean have offspring, the child, not being of you alone, is of course unclean or half clean. But now it is not unclean. To which effect he adds, else were your children unclean; but now are they holy; that is, not unclean. But the Apostle calls them, holy, by the intensity of the expression again casting out the dread arising from that sort of suspicion.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on First Corinthians

Circumcision of the heart…

For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Romans 2:25-29

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

Romans 4:9-12

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deuteronomy 30:6

The topic of circumcision seems at the heart of baptism for those who hold to unconditional paedobaptism particular in the reformed tradition. This was something I didn’t really encounter amongst laity but quite a lot amongst those Ministers who actively championed the Reformed tradition as their own. I will confess I find this argument equally the most plausible but also the most overly complicated and obscure. It feels simultaneously like it is clutching at straws and yet on to something but never managed to stop feeling somewhat esoteric.

The main thrust seems to be that just as the Old Testament gave the sign of the circumcision as a marker of the covenant, the New Testament has effectively ‘hot-swapped’ baptism as a new circumcision of the heart. The passage above from Colossians is often pointed to as it describes baptism as the circumcision ‘made without hands’ which touches on the Deuteronomy passage describing the circumcision of the heart. This too touches on Romans 4:11 which describes circumcision as a seal of Abraham’s persistent faith. This is a lot like how we talk about baptism and considering Israel circumcised their newborns we should, therefore, baptise ours. This is very broad strokes but this seems to be a decent top-level view.

The issue with the baptism as circumcision argument is that, whilst an overlap undeniably exists, it runs the risk of falling into the same trap the Pharisees and Sadducees fell into, which John the Baptist accused them of. That is essentially conflating the visible body of Israel with Israel proper. Paul expands on this in Romans 9…

“I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.”

Romans 9:1-8

So Paul here draws a distinction between Israel and Israel proper, many Reformed likewise draw a distinction between the Church visible and the Church invisible. Thomas Cranmer in an early draft of the 39 Articles wrote…

In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: Thirteen Articles

However this raises the question which I mentioned beforehand, how can one ever really determine if one is a member of both the visible Church and the invisible Church? Israel or Israel proper? Is baptism now a means of gaming a circumcision of the heart previously unavailable to the people of Israel? Or is it effectively a less physically drastic and scarring form of the circumcision of the flesh? Can we force the law of God to be written on our heart? Or is baptism not really a sign or seal of such things? This form of baptism it seems, in effect, boils down to a rite by some definitions different only in style to Jewish circumcision and not nature. Which is ironic given the grief Baptists are given for their approach to Baptism which in a certain light seems to be taken more seriously. Some traditions believe in an ex opere operato form of baptism but it seems to me that baptism is inevitably a response to God’s work beginning in a person’s life that precedes baptism, this is evidenced by the account of Cornelius’s household and the Ethiopian eunuch, they are essentially the same story in many ways told in different contexts. Baptism is a seal, but it is a seal of something God has already begun and is bearing visible fruit, this fruit anticipates baptism which brings the full measure of the holy spirit.

The first ecumenical council…

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Acts 15:1,2

In debates around baptism as circumcision, I find it interesting that the first council of Jerusalem isn’t brought up more frequently. The reason for the gathering is precisely because some people insist on the continuation of circumcision within the infant church so that the law of Moses is fulfilled. This is rejected by the apostles under James and yet no overlap on the roles of baptism or circumcision is raised despite the perfect opportunity being presented. Rather than rejecting the premise why didn’t they instead tell those in error that baptism was actually the new circumcision? It would be a win-win result. Christians converts have a circumcision of the heart in baptism without still operating under the law and necessitating the actual physical act. This is the argument we see people invoking with the use of passages like Colossians 2:11-13. Yet this is conspicuous in its absence suggesting the line drawn between the two isn’t quite as clear-cut as it’s made out by some commentators. We see this when we read on in Acts 15.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:6-11

Here we see again, with reference to the heart, the idea of a circumcision of the heart we read about in Deuteronomy. The first council made it clear that it wasn’t complying with the law of Moses that saved now but by faith through the grace of God and evidenced by the Holy Spirit. Can we game a circumcision of the heart by baptism in those who cannot or would not give a sincere profession of their faith? No. Faith seems a call to which Baptism is the response.

Old Testament Emphasis

Noah’s Ark…

…when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

1 Peter 3:20-22

By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

Hebrews 11:7

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.

Genesis 7:1

But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.

Matthew 24:37-41

When we read the story of Noah and his Ark we clearly see salvation for a household on the basis of Noah’s faith alone, not that of the individuals in the household. This is then explicitly linked to baptism by Paul (I believe) in Hebrews. We notice in Genesis chapter 9 that this is despite the character of his household being a mixed bag  (Canaan in particular). This seems to suggest a form of ex opere operato form of salvation, the deed itself is effectual, just as the Ark was effectual in delivering salvation from the waters, I find this argument quite convincing. Some point to the combination of the wood and water as the combination of the cross and baptism. Ambrose of Milan wrote on this…

All flesh was corrupt by its iniquities. My Spirit, says God, shall not remain among men, because they are flesh. Whereby God shows that the grace of the Spirit is turned away by carnal impurity and the pollution of grave sin. Upon which, God, willing to restore what was lacking, sent the flood and bade just Noah go up into the ark. And he, after having, as the flood was passing off, sent forth first a raven which did not return, sent forth a dove which is said to have returned with an olive twig. You see the water, you see the wood [of the ark], you see the dove, and do you hesitate as to the mystery?

The water, then, is that in which the flesh is dipped, that all carnal sin may be washed away. All wickedness is there buried. The wood is that on which the Lord Jesus was fastened when He suffered for us. The dove is that in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended, as you have read in the New Testament, Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind. The raven is the figure of sin, which goes forth and does not return, if, in you, too, inwardly and outwardly righteousness be preserved

Ambrose of Milan, On The Mysteries 3:10-11

Yet the unspoken element here when this is raised is that Noah’s household, for all their failings, were different to the rest of the people during this period for they alone entered into the Ark and did so consciously. They did not mock and scoff at Noah like the rest of the generation. To really claim that Noah’s household was saved eternally on the basis of the faith of a parent alone seems to suggest a form of antinomianism. We know this does not bear up because sin persisted in the seed of Noah from which all people alive are now inheritors, it didn’t last much beyond them getting out of the ark. Particularly if we note the contrast between the eventual fates of Canaan’s descendants and the Israelites. If baptism and the cross save does this negate our own agency? No. To believe otherwise is to fall, once more, into the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees which John lambasted. Our agency enables us to respond to the Holy Spirit and brings us to repentance. Just as the agency of Noah’s household was exercised in bringing them into salvation from the flood. Just as it was the agency of Lot that saved his household from the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet it was that same agency of his wife to be lost via her disobedience. We cannot be perfect in our discernment but that does not me we should abdicate discernment when baptising.

The Red Sea Crossing…

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land,and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Exodus 14:21,22

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

1 Corinthians 10:1-5

I’ve had this passage raised to me with individuals offering that because the entirety of Israel passed through the sea, all were thus baptised. Thus we should not make a distinction in regard to the age when we baptise. We see Paul make the link between the crossing and baptism and textually there is the contrast between the Israelites and the Egyptians as an echo of Noah and his Generation. The argument, as a result, is essentially the same in both cases although in this instance all ages are inevitably included in the host of Moses.

John Chrysostom’s homily on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 is really excellent on this passage and highlights the link between the crossing and the subsequent food and drink as mirroring baptism and the subsequent communion meal we experience in the church. However, he is at pains to emphasise that this ultimately profited them nothing, all those who crossed the Red Sea perished. He says…

As touching His gift then, such is the case: now let us observe also what follows, and consider, whether when they showed themselves unworthy of the gift, He spared them. Nay, this you can not say. Wherefore also he added, Howbeit with most of them God was not well-pleased; although He had honored them with so great honor. Yea, it profited them nothing, but most of them perished. The truth is, they all perished, but that he might not seem to prophesy total destruction to these also, therefore he said, most of them. And yet they were innumerable, but their number profited them nothing: and these were all so many tokens of love; but not even did this profit them, inasmuch as they did not themselves show forth the fruits of love.

John Chrysostom, Homily 23 on First Corinthians

Someone hearing the above may be tempted to draw two conclusions on the passage. One is a more laisez faire attitude of ‘it doesn’t seem to matter then when baptism is experienced’. The other is ‘let us then baptise those we know (as best is able) would be grateful for these ‘tokens of love’ such that they aren’t squandered’. Far from all being ‘baptised’ in the Red Sea, they did so only to find their bodies ‘scattered in the wilderness’. Baptism, therefore, seems the ordinary means of salvation but it is no guarantor of it and a judicious application inevitably seems wiser than an indiscriminate one.


Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said:

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,

And He answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

And You heard my voice.

For You cast me into the deep,

Into the heart of the seas,

And the floods surrounded me;

All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight;

Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’

The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;

The deep closed around me;

Weeds were wrapped around my head.

I went down to the moorings of the mountains;

The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;

Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,

O Lord, my God.

“When my soul fainted within me,

I remembered the Lord;

And my prayer went up to You,

Into Your holy temple.

Those who regard worthless idols

Forsake their own Mercy.

But I will sacrifice to You

With the voice of thanksgiving;

I will pay what I have vowed.

Salvation is of the Lord.”

So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah 2:1-10

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 12:39-41

Jonah is one of my favourite stories in the Bible because it is a twice-told story of repentance. The first being that of Jonah itself and the second being that of the Babylonian people. At the same time, I can’t help but empathise with Jonah’s character as he is constantly torn in two directions, his own and that of the Lord’s on every step of the journey. Jonah’s own story, however, mimics that of baptism. On the boat, we see confession, in the water we see his death and at his arrival on dry land his resurrection. This is a pattern we see repeatedly and is mirrored in the aforementioned stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius in the New Testament. Confession, death and resurrection which mirrors the pattern we see across the Bible: Creation, Decreation and Recreation.

The sign of Jonah also prefigures and joins us to Christ in baptism. John Chrysostom said, commenting on Matthew 12:41…

“Now is He striking the first note of the doctrine of His resurrection, and confirming it by the type.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

And later on…

“For this cause we everywhere show forth His death, both in the mysteries, and in baptism, and in all the rest. Therefore Paul also cries with a clear voice, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

Now can we have baptism without confession? No. Can we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ without confessing him as Lord? No. Without confession Jonah, and those with him would have been lost to the waters. Instead, the committing of Jonah to the waters also brought about the repentance and thanksgiving of those with him. A pattern we see with the subsequent repentance of the King of Nineveh and his subjects. It wasn’t the repentance of the King alone that saves Nineveh but the repentance of all peoples of the city that brings salvation and stays God’s judgement.


There are more passages I could bring up. Passages concerning Aaron’s washing before entering the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:19-20). Washing as part of ritual purification (Leviticus 15). Ezekiel washing and anointing with oil (Ezekiel 16:9) or Naaman’s baptism in the Jordan river (2 Kings 5:10-14).  Yet I do not think these specifically speak to the timing of baptism. I have however tried to cover the passages I think have some immediate significance to the timing of baptism, coming away with the impression that anytime is the right time for baptism when preceded by a confession of the subject.

Baptism is linked to circumcision but different to the latter in that it is, to use Abrahamic language, predominantly in relation to the ‘promise’ wherein the other is one attached to the ‘flesh’. It seems inevitably attached to an individual’s coming to faith that may be part of, or distinct from, the conversion of a broader household. Salvation seems inevitably attached to such an act in the majority of cases although we have numerous examples in scripture of those who subsequently fall away suggesting that not all who are baptised are regenerate or actually saved. These examples include: Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus and those Paul calls out in his epistles as having departed from the truth or had been ‘delivered to Satan’ by the church. However, all of these are baptised under the impression that as best can be discerned they are repentant and confessing Christ as he revealed himself and subsequently taught by the apostles.

The act itself is by immersion or dipping is done in response to public confession and in the name of the Holy Trinity. After which individuals are considered full-fledged members of the Christian community.

I’ve tried to focus on passages that might impact the discussion of the timing of baptism but am aware there is much more to be said on scripture on this topic. However, I am aware this is quite long and have hoped to go for breadth rather than depth in this. I will in the subsequent sections go into more detail on the practice and how discussions and decisions around this have manifested themselves in the church. I will also explore the relationship of baptism to communion and related topics like confirmation or chrismation.

In the next section, I will attempt to parse my views on the topic in the light of the patristic discussion on baptism and early church practice.