Normative Baptism in the Early Church

I came across this inscription quoted in a blog post suggesting infant baptism was normative in the early church:

To the sacred dead. Florentius made this monument to his worthy 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. (ILCV I:1343, from the third century; edited by E. Diehl (second edition; Berlin, 1961))

When I read this, I conclude the opposite. Appronianus was baptized, it appears, right before he died, not as an infant to be entered into the covenant community as some Reformed theologians argue. He was baptized because many in the early church argued that the unbaptized were unconverted, and thus destined for hell should they die before baptism.

In the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus , who spoke of baptism as “the conversion of the life, the question put to the Godward conscience.” (Oration on Holy Baptism, III). He pleads, “While thou art still master of thy thoughts run to the Gift” (Ibid. XI). Gregory does speak of baptism as a seal of covenant, but a covenant with each converted person (Ibid. VIII). He writes, “Others are not in a position to receive it, perhaps on account of infancy” (Gregory did perform infant baptisms, but my point is that it is not the normative practice). The position he argues is:

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. (Ibid. XXVIII)

Infant baptism does show up in the early church, but even in the fourth century it was not the preferred method, it is a “lesser” baptism if you will. Gregory’s concession to baptize infants is rooted partially in the unfortunate fact that many did not survive into adulthood. He frequently urges adults to not wait for baptism. Many would refuse baptism until their deathbed, on account of the belief that sins committed after baptism were not atoned for (See Shepherd of Hermas, II.4.3).

Gregory is just one voice among many of course. A few other indications:

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… This means, that we indeed descend into the water full of sin and defilement, but come, bearing fruit in our own heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. (Epistle of Barnabas, chapt. 11)

Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. (Didache, 7.4)

Obviously, infants can’t fast.

For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgression; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Iranaeus, Fragments, 34, ANF 01, 1428)

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 (Justin Martyr, First Apology, LXI, emphasis mine)

…the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration- as many as come tot he truth, and are born again, and received blessing from God. (Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, II.16)
What is more beautiful than the words with which we renounce the service of the Devil and enlist in the service of Christ? than both that confession which is before the Baptismal laver, and that which is after it? (Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, Homily I, NPNF 1.13, 103)
The baptism then into Christ means that believers are baptized into Him. We could not believe in Christ if we were not taught confession in Father, Son and Holy Spirit… And He laid on us the command to be born again of water and of the Spirit through prayer and invocations, the Holy Spirit drawing us nigh unto the water. (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.9)

What then is “normative” in the early church? I am inclined to see infant baptism as an early practice (has several powerful, early supporters in Origen, Cyprian, Augustine and Hippolytus*) but not the norm for the Christian community in the first few centuries. The majority of early support (up to the end of the 4th century) is centralized in North Africa (Cyprian and Tertullian- who mentions infant baptism, but opposed it were both natives of Carthage. The council of Carthage- a local gathering of Bishops was the first to affirm the practice of infant Baptism in the third century. Augustine was from nearby Hippo, and Origen was from Egypt) thus the practice is hardly widespread until the fourth century. Even as a supporter of infant baptism, Augustine, who had a Christian mother, and was born in North Africa, was baptized on his conversion. Gregory of Nazianzus was the son of a Bishop, and was baptized as an adult. It is only in second half of the 4th century and beginning of the 5th that infant baptism overtakes credobaptism as the preferred method.

I am also reflecting on and reading on the theology behind the practices and the shift in commonly held assumptions regarding the nature of baptism. But the above quoted passage from Justin Martyr (died 165 AD) shows an understanding of baptism as a choice of the individual to become born again. In contrast, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin and regeneration in baptism meant that the act of baptism (regardless of choice) imparts saving grace on the person being baptized. Medieval Catholic theology is certainly Augustinian, as is Calvin’s understanding of will, grace and baptism (although I should note that much of Calvin’s theology of baptism as a symbolic act of the saving grace through faith certainly is in line with typical baptist thinking). Expect more on this aspect is the near future.

*Hippolytus’ support of infant baptism is drawn from a document which some have questioned the authorship of (e.g. Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw, Baptism In The Early Church [Webster, New York: Carey Publications, 2004], pp. 77-78).

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