Baptism in the Early Church

Book Reviews, Church History, The Church, Theology, Uncategorized, Worship

51YWHVKQWYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Note: For many of us who identify as “Reformed” Baptist, the question of the proper recipients and mode of baptism is quite pressing.  This is the primary practical matter that separates us from our other Reformed brethren.  Although the answer to this question must be settled by Scripture alone, church history is a helpful witness and relevant voice.  However, there are often competing historical narratives put forth, especially regarding the true views and practice of the so called “Early Church.”  Perhaps this extended book review of Baptism in the Early Church by Stander and Louw will be of assistance to some of my brethren working through these issues.  SDG!

History is a canvas upon which we often paint our own self-portrait.  By this it is meant that history as we experience it is in its very nature always mediated, and even when dealing directly with primary sources we do not approach them without significant presuppositions, barriers and biases.  What we call history is usually a carefully composed interpretive construct we have imposed upon the data.  While some are attracted to historical study on the basis of a romantic notion of objectivity, the truth is that historiography often says more about its practitioners than its subjects.  We are not typically neutral receivers of history; we have an active interest in interpreting the past in such a way that it supports the various agendas of the present.  To borrow and tweak a phrase from Paul, where agenda abounds anachronism abounds all the more.

One theological area in which these anachronisms typically reveal themselves is the debate concerning the recipients and mode of Christian baptism.  There is a very real temptation to go into the Patristic source documents searching for Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans or Catholics born out of due time.  Although a thorough discussion of the commonly subjective nature of history is beyond the scope of this review, these brief comments do well to define the arena into which Profs. Hendrick F. Stander and Johannes P. Louw offer their work Baptism in the Early Church.  While they are not necessarily immune themselves from bias and subjectivity, they at least recognize the problem and have sought to offer as neutral a presentation of the historical data as they can.

First, on pages 15-16 they acknowledge the reality of theological bias common in historical work:

Scholars are often led by their theological presuppositions when they claim that history supports their particular point of view.  All the different perspectives concerning baptism have been ‘proved’ by quotations from the writers of the early church.

The authors are able to marshal many witnesses to prove this point.  Through several direct quotes from historical works along side the original sources in their own contexts, they show the way that men such as A.C. Barnard, W. Oetting, W. Marais and L.J.C. Van den Berg[1] have (in the words of Stander and Louw) gone to history “groping for proofs “(p. 26).  They then clearly delineate the scope of their own current contribution to the historical conversation regarding the doctrine of Christian baptism:

It is not the aim of this book to defend any theological point of view.  Certainly not.  The purpose of this study is to present the information about the actual rite of baptism in the writings of the early church as literally as possible, and in historical order, so as to provide a source book which may be of help to debaters in their quest for the practice of baptism in the first four centuries A.D (p. 16).

This review will now summarize some of the key historical data presented by this “source book” and then analyze its contribution to the modern debates.  Although all of the sources presented are a vital part of the Patristic witness, only the chapters on The Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian will be briefly summarized in this review.[2]

The ‘Apostolic Fathers’ is somewhat of a misnomer, as it simply refers to a small collection of writings which are only unified by their unique antiquity among the corpus of Christian writings.  These are the most ancient non-Scriptural witnesses we currently possess.  Stander and Louw only deal with three of them, as the others have nothing significant to contribute to discussions on baptism.  Those three are The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, and The Shepherd of Hermas.  Common threads begin to develop which will remain a constant throughout this study.  Namely, a pre-baptismal requirement of fasting and prayer (p. 33), the use of language with best harmonizes with immersion of the body as the normative mode (p. 37), and the prevalent early church understanding of baptism as being effectual for the remission of sins (pp. 39-42).  Interestingly, these initial foci include both a strong argument in favor of exclusive patristic credobaptism (infants would not have been able to fast and pray, and there is no exception for them mentioned) and the seed that the authors later will argue eventually blossomed into acceptance of paedobaptism (if baptism provides for the actual remission of sins a society with a high mortality rate temps disaster by withholding it).[3]

The late second century work by Irenaeus entitled Against Heresies is primarily relevant because of the appeal made to his inclusion of infants in those who “through [Christ] are born to God” (p. 53).  But a broader look at the context shows that he was actually arguing along lines quite foreign to our own debates- namely that Jesus passed through all stages of life in the flesh (even making it to the age of ninety or more!)  in order to redeem all sorts of people.  That fact gives critical context to his quote that “Jesus 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” (p. 53).  Yet this quote is often appealed to as a proof text for infant baptism without due consideration of its unique intent.

Perhaps the most frequently debated ancient passage on Baptism and its recipients is found in the writings of Tertullian.  Although Chapter 7 includes many interesting passages concerning immersion and other baptismal details, the more famous quote is actually dealt with in Chapter 1.  The passage in question relates to whether baptism should be delayed until as close to death as possible (so as to allow the subject no time to commit new sins after being cleansed), or if it should be administered to the very young.  The reader will need to consult the book itself for a full discussion, but one quote from Stander and Louw will reveal the thrust of their analysis:

The passage from Tertullian does not speak of infant baptism as it is understood today; it merely refers to a practice among some Christians (of which Tertullian disapproves) to baptize people at a very early stage as small children (p. 18).

The final ancient witness to be summarized in this review is that of Cyprian.  He is selected because, in the words of the authors, “Cyprian is the first Church Father who bears indisputable witness to the practice of infant baptism in the Christian church of the third century” (p. 105).  The document in question is a letter sent to the Bishop Fidus in the year 253.  That it describes and assumes infant baptism is beyond debate.  Here is the first explicit mention of that practice which does not require any contextual acrobatics or special pleading.  Yet lest we fall into the very anachronisms this review began by warning against, the authors helpfully point out that “…one should remember that Cyprian’s motivation for infant baptism differs from the motivation offered by those churches who profess infant baptism since the Reformation” (p. 116).  Cyprian is no more a Westminster Presbyterian born in the wrong century than Tertullian is a lonely ancient Baptist because he describes immersion .  We must not conscript these men into our various causes on the basis of similarities which are tertiary at best.[4]

This review began by arguing that neutrality tends to be a stranger to historiography.  Stander and Louw have labored to overcome this fact, and have presented the fact in as plain a manner as they can.  When the history has been allowed to speak with as much unbiased clarity as they are able to give it, what does it say?  This review will close with three observations.

First, Stander and Louw do not come across completely unbiased.  A fair-minded reader (even a credobaptist one) should admit that they seem predisposed to explain the evidence in favor of immersion and credobaptism.  Regarding the question of whether the normative mode of baptism in the early church was immersion or effusion, they interpret the early Christian art they present as inconclusive (pp. 172-9).  However, this art seems to clearly depict one person pouring water on another in several of the examples shown.  They are right to critique the practice of reading too much into the diverse size of the depicted subjects, as ancient art tended to reflect the patron/client societal structure of the day with authority figures drawn significantly larger than their dependents.  Therefore, assuming that the size discrepancy in this art reflects very young recipients of Baptism is unwarranted.  But it seems a stretch to say that the one being baptized is not being effused in the pictures on pages 172-3.  Furthermore, they present in the introduction many examples of paedobaptist mishandling of the historical witness without giving credobaptist missteps equal time.[5]  While this may reflect an actual superiority of credobaptist historians on this point, it more likely is simply a reflection of the authors’ South African context.  Fallacious Baptist appeals to history are fairly common in the West.[6]  This apparent predisposition in favor of immersion and credobaptism may also be due to the fact that as paedobaptists themselves, Stander and Louw at time go further than is necessary to appear unbiased in favor of their own scruples.  Sometimes our good intensions in this regard can make us distastefully uncharitable to our own theological allies.

Second, while this work is a valuable contribution to the Church’s understanding of baptism, it also serves to remind the reader of the limitations of Historical Theology.  Books like this rarely change minds.  Typically those who already held the view favored by history are encouraged and strengthened in their position, while those who already disagreed take issue with the methodology and conclusions offered.  Furthermore, we must always remember to keep Historical Theology in check.  As Dr. James M. Renihan writes in his foreword, “In theological debate, history should never be the final judge; that place is reserved for Scripture” (p. 7).

Yet thirdly, we ought never be afraid to let history speak to us with as clear a voice as our research is able to give it.  That voice should never be as loud as that of Scripture, but that does not make the voice irrelevant.  As Dr. Renihan continues, “History may, however, make a significant contribution to the discussion, shedding light on the practices of those living closest to the era of the Bible” (p. 7).

With those thoughts about the chaste nature of Historical Theology in mind, and remembering everything the introduction of this review asserted regarding the way we tend to paint the concerns of the present upon the unsuspecting canvas of the past, a bold statement can now be made in context: Baptism in the Early Church powerfully argues in favor of credobaptism by immersion.  While there are many legitimately debatable references in the Patristic witness regarding possible examples of the baptism of infants, one must look up from these small grains of sand and survey the vast beach before him.  Anyone who examines the material available from this period should be struck by the sheer amount of detail the early writers went into when describing baptism.  We are told the preferred temperature of the water, the advisable dates, the specific language used, the preparations, the immediate aftermath, the appropriate levels of dress, even how to handle the baptism of menstruating women and much more.  But there are no provisions made for infancy until hundreds of years had passed on from the days of the Apostles.  Furthermore, the oft-repeated arguments that these documents (as well as the New Testament) are simply describing convert baptism and not covenant family baptism do no hold up either.  As Stander and Louw write on page 186, “…no distinction was ever made between persons coming from a heathen or Christian family,” and on page 80 that even if vague references are interpreted in favor of paedobaptist practice, “…it is important to notice that the baptism of these infants was not linked to the covenant or the rite of circumsicion.”[7]

As it concerns the debates within the modern Reformed milieu of which this current writer is a member, Baptism in the Early Church is certainly no deathblow to the covenantal infant baptism of the churches which subscribe to the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity.  To expect it to do so would be to ask the historical witness to go beyond its bounds.[8]  But the apparent fact that infant baptism was not the practice of the earliest churches, nor was it likely introduced for hundreds of years, does testify strongly in favor of the Baptist position.  The reflections of the authors on this point serve as a fitting conclusion to this review:

The patristic literature of the first four centuries clearly shows how infant baptism developed.  Probably the first instances known, occurred in the latter part of the third century, mostly in North Africa, but during the fourth century infant baptism became more and more accepted… the development of the church (after church and State became reconciled) into a more unified body, controlled by the see of Rome, provided a theological base for infant baptism to be accepted… since the fourth century infant baptism began to develop into a generally accepted custom” (p. 184).

[1] Although the works the authors interact with in the introduction betray their South African context, the reader will have no trouble applying the same analysis to more familiar authors.  Even John Calvin wrote of infant baptism that “…there is no ancient writer who does not refer its origin, as a matter of certainty, to the age of the apostles” (cited in Jewett, Infant Baptism & The Covenant of Grace, p. 14 n. 2), an assertion which this current work immediately discredits.

[2] The required brevity of this review makes this list uncomfortably selective.  The author has attempted to avoid redundancy, and has thus left out some key texts which have similar aspects to those highlighted.

[3] See the Conclusion, especially pp. 183-4 for a more nuanced discussion of this process and the role “emergency baptism” played in the early church.

[4] By this it is meant that we must not be myopic in our research.  We should start with their overall witness to baptism, which first addresses other concerns such as theological meaning and the various relevant cultural/ecclesiastical pressures before looking for testimony regarding our own views on baptism’s recipients and mode.

[5] To be fair, they do occasionally critique credobaptist mishandlings of the text, but only rarely.  One example is on pages 44-5 where they are critical of Aland’s interpretation of the Apology of Aristedes of Athens.

[6] See The Trail of Blood by Dr. J.W. Carroll as a particularly egregious example

[7] Paedobaptist theologians often argue that there is no command given in the New Testament to baptize infants because the principle of covenant family inclusion was so ingrained in Israel that none was necessary.  When one surveys the early church documents and finds this silence continuing, one does wonder when this argument runs out of steam.  Even when extending charity on this point, our practices do need to eventually exist somewhere to be considered valid.

[8] In attempting to empathize with his paedobaptist brothers, this author believes that if he were Scripturally convinced of covanental infant baptism, he would not be shaken by Baptism in the Early Church.  Even if it is granted that the early church practiced immersion and exclusive credobaptism, it is also indisputable that they believed near universally in the conflation of the symbol and the thing signified, i.e. baptismal regeneration.  It is not totally invalid for principled paedobaptists to object that modern credobaptists are selective in their championing of the early church witness at this point.  Yet the reply is that there is a real difference between heteropraxy and heterodoxy at this stage of the church.  It takes far longer for the church to develop dogma than it ought for vital practices to be corrupted.


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