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.

(Rome)

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.

(Rome)

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.

(Capua)

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.

(Rome)

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.

(Salona)

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

(Rome)

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. . .

(Rome)

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.

(Ravenna)

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.

(Naples)

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.

(Hippo)

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.

Catechism

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Is the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church?

Is the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church?

The phrase attributed to Tertullian is one thrown about a fair bit during times we hear about the suffering of Christians around the world. In some ways its true, the church has always grown it seems and theres always been resistance to the church worked out in violence.

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

John 12:24-25 NIV

We may qualify what exactly ‘the seed’ is but I’ve always associated it with growth in light of the above passage. With recent events however I’ve begun to wonder if this is always true. Take a look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today, home to people like Tertullian, where history tells us the church has been ground down over centuries of persecution in places that were once its heartlands.

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Morgan Lee writing for Christianity Today actually addresses this directly in his article ‘Sorry Tertullian‘. In it he highlights the words of several experts on church growth who give mixed responses to the quote in the light of history years later. The most appropriate, I thought, came from Stuart George Hall.

Stuart George Hall, a historian at University of St. Andrews, notes the church isn’t mentioned in Tertullian’s original quote. Rather, Tertullian is arguing that martyrs have “done more to win people to patient endurance of pain and death than all the work of admirable philosophers like Cicero,” said Hall. “Their blood is not so much the seed of the church as the seed of virtuous living and dying.”

Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today

To my understanding the original quote is more along the lines of ‘The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians’. The quote can then be understand in terms of virtue in the face of suffering which is picked up by Justin Long who adds.

Long believes persecution initially harms churches because it interrupts networks and prompts emigration. But given that “in times of persecution, people choose what they believe and refine their faith,” he said, persecution can boost church numbers once suffering has ended.

Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today

Statistically however the traditional understanding of this quotation isn’t true. We use this quote at times to take comfort at the sound of bad news for the church, I also think to make peace with a form of fatalism these events can inculcate in us. This fatalism can help us to keep going in times of struggle, but it can also leave us hesitant to change our circumstances or those of others, we just accept it. More pressingly, the quote neglects to touch on the existential nature of persecution for the church in some parts of the world, like that in the MENA region currently where we see ancient Christian communities disappearing altogether.

For many of us the suffering of many Christians happens without us knowing about it, when we do hear about it a saying like that of Tertullian’s can actually comfort us into inaction, such things are ultimately in the hands of God. This is problematic, because we have a responsibility for one another. The blood of the martyrs says more about us fellow Christians in our response to such things than the violence inflicted against Christians itself.

Domine quo vadis?

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As Christians we shouldn’t shy from suffering, Jesus himself told us he didn’t come to bring peace but the sword. I think for many of us theres some fascination with the subject of suffering for the faith, because we hear so many stories in some ways so drastically removed from our own position in the West. Ever since I first heard the apocryphal story of Peter encountering Christ whilst fleeing persecution in Rome. Peter asks the Lord ‘Where are you going?’ to which Christ replies ‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’ and Peter turns back to accept the martyrdom waiting for him. As a story its powerful but then part of me wonders, if I was a peer or friend of Peter – how would I respond? Happiness? Fatalism? Resignation? Would I join him? Beg for him to save himself? Simply watch from the sidelines? Peter himself was willing to fight to protect Christ when he was arrested but was that an exception for Christ? If its not should we likewise not resist the suffering of other Christians? Another relatively well-known saying of Tertullian was “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” Peter in this context was rebuked for protecting Christ, if the Church is Christ’s body should we hold to the same attitude?

If a person being persecuted was my neighbour would my response differ to that of someone a world away? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Part of me wonders if I should accept persecution for me and mine, to turn the other cheek. Yet I feel an obligation to help and support Christians in places where its far tougher to follow Christ, even ending their suffering if possible. Then I wonder should we have the same attitude for those close to us if they experienced similar things? Yet if I take Tertullian’s saying at face value the implication seems that I shouldn’t lament the suffering of other believers because its good for the church in its witness. Should we then not seek to alleviated the sufferings of believers elsewhere if it is a witness? To what degree do we consider other Christians expendable for the sake of the Churches witness to others? Or is it not about being a witness but instead responding appropriately to love of God? Do we really love one another if we’re not willing to save one another from the hands of persecutors?

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:9-21 NIV

I don’t know the answers to the questions I’ve asked here. I think though this saying of Tertuellian is wrong, or requires such nuance that it isn’t of much help. History bears out that martyrdom doesn’t correlate with the growth of the church quantitatively. If this doesn’t bear out in practice, it does little good for us the opposite to be the case. We can redeem some good from the martyrdom of others, but does this make martyrdom ultimately a good thing for the church? The martyr goes to be with God, but it is the Church left behind that suffers from their absence. What happens when the church in a region disappears entirely as a result? What happens when such persecution is systemised and legitimised in laws? Is it enough to shrug our shoulders, bring it to God in prayer and then leave it to him? Aren’t we in some measure responsible for one another?

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.

One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King Jr. – A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church