This is part 3 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.
There’s hardly a discernible consensus on the age of baptismal candidates in the extant literature of the early church. Full stop.
Everyone should be able to agree here. In the first couple centuries of post-canonical church history, there is very little written on baptism at all. And what is written is too sparse to bolster historical precedent for any one baptismal tradition. In light of this, the leveled way to use these very early sources, like the Didache, Irenaeus, etc., is not to try and claim them for the Baptists or paedobaptists, respectively. Such a tactic would be intellectually irresponsible and perhaps even dishonest. The best way, I believe, to use this history is to admit a measure of eclecticism—at least in terms of the ordinance or sacrament of baptism.
Admitting an eclectic approach to baptism in the early church, the scope of which is too diverse to detail here, we can take a step back and ask the simple question, “According to the extant literature, what was the early church not doing with regard to baptism?”
There are a few things we could immediately observe here: (1) they were not observing a purely symbolic baptism; (2) they were not (according to the extant literature) baptizing infants; and (3) they were not (always) baptizing upon a profession of faith. These three observations make the terrain very difficult for both Baptists and paedobaptists when it comes to finding either of those administrative forms of baptism in the ante-Nicene church as they exist today.
The symbolic view of baptism, which many modern Baptists espouse, does not comport with the early church witness. This is without dispute. The Epistle of Barnabas says, “Now concerning the water it is written in reference to Israel, how that they would not receive the baptism which bringeth remission of sins, but would build for themselves (11.1).” In other places, baptism is expressly linked to regeneration. Our 17th century Baptist forerunners understood this, and rejected a purely symbolic form of baptism. Question 96 of Keach’s Catechism (probably written by William Collins) reads, “How do baptism and the Lord’s supper become effectual means of salvation?” It answers, “Baptism and the Lords supper become effectual means of salvation, not for any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ.” First Peter 3:21 is one of the texts Collins sites in support of this statement, keeping in line, at least in principle, with the thought of the early church.
While the 17th century Baptists, along with the Reformed paedobaptists, would reject baptismal regeneration, they also refused to see it as a purely symbolical ordinance with no salvific import. They and their Reformed paedobaptist cousins believed Word and Spirit were the only means/Agent involved with the work of regeneration. The Westminster Confession reads, “Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WCF, 28.5).”
In the first two centuries of the New Testament church’s life, there is little to no mention of infant baptism among the several mentions of believers being baptized. If we are doing the work of historians, we could go a step further and refuse to accept that infant baptism occurred at all during that time due to the absence of evidence. The burden of proof would lie squarely upon the paedobaptist to demonstrate it was being practiced in the first two centuries of church history. There is an oblique statement by Irenaeus concerning the sanctity of infants, which is a hopeful prospect for the paedobaptists. But this comes in the second century and in no wise before. Tertullian responds negatively to infant baptism in the second century, and while this does nothing to support the Baptist understanding, it does seem to support an eclectic approach to baptism in the first two centuries of church history and perhaps beyond.
Baptisms were not always being administered to professing Christians upon a credible profession of faith. Sometimes it was delayed until old age. Constantine refused baptism until he was on his deathbed in the 4th century! Second Clement 6:9 gives historical precedent for delayed baptism (inadvertently so), when it reads, “But if even such righteous men as these cannot by their righteous deeds deliver their children, with what confidence shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, enter into the kingdom of God?” If we delay baptism until after the sins resulting from the vigor of youth are past, we are more likely to keep our baptism pure—or so it was thought.
This gets even more complicated when we consider the diverse forms of paedobaptism in existence today. For example, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed views of baptism are substantially different in terms of what each of those traditions believe happens in baptism. For the Roman Catholics, baptism is effectual in its own right, e.g. ex opere operato. For the Lutherans, baptism is the means whereby God regenerates the subject. And for the Reformed, baptism does not regenerate in any sense though it certainly signifies it (cf. WCF, 28.1); but it does signify entrance into the external administration of Covenant of Grace, i.e. the New Covenant.
Nearly all the oldest post-canonical sources on baptism associate baptism with regeneration, and this seems to render the Reformed paedobaptists as the new kids on the block when put alongside Catholicism and Lutheranism. Though they want to remain in catholic (little “c”) fellowship with their paedobaptist predecessors, they represent some of the first paedobaptists to reject what was the very basis of paedobaptism in the first place—baptismal regeneration. Roman Catholics and Lutherans both preserve baptismal regeneration in principle, albeit with some obvious and serious differences, especially in terms of causality. But even beliefs concerning the very nature and purpose of baptism differ among those who affirmed some kind of baptismal regeneration in the early church. For example, 2 Clement 6:9 views baptism as a damsel in distress, needing protection from impurity, “if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled…” Conversely, Ignatius writing to Polycarp understands baptism as a defense mechanism against sin, “Let your baptism abide with you as your shield… (Ignatius to Polycarp, 6.2).”
At this point, the Baptist can take an honest look at the ante-Nicene material, admit that not everyone practiced baptism in the same way (sin is real, after all), and admit that baptism was often associated with regeneration (we have a category for this in our understanding of what a sign is). At the same time they might point the paedobaptist to the deafening silence concerning baptized infants within the first two centuries of the church. And the Baptist can do this without anachronistically laying claim to the early church, as if they were all textbook Baptists. This is a way of putting both Baptists and paedobaptists in the same polemical boat. The paedobaptist (much less the Reformed paedobaptist) shouldn’t be able to claim history for themselves if they cannot find their own tradition extant therein. This takes the historical high-ground away from the paedobaptist even though it does nothing to necessarily support the Baptist position.
Therefore, Baptists should use this particular era of church history not to make Baptist arguments, but to level the playing field. Instead of one side trying to claim the catholic high ground, we can all admit this is a difficult subject that cannot be solved through historical theology. We must take the fight to the biblical-theological arena.