The Fascinating Story of Patristic Baptism(s)

One of the things that I emphasized in my video on baptism in the early church a few months back is how fascinatingly different much patristic baptismal practice is from all churches today. Three-year catechetical preparation, nude baptisms, solemn renunciations of Satan, Eucharistic celebrations with milk and honey—it’s such an interesting and colorful history! As I mentioned in the video, studying baptism hit me at an emotional level, especially because of the frequent reality of persecution associated with it. Baptism connotes something of the wonder of the gospel, the church, and the drama of Christianity in confrontation with a hostile world.

As I continue in my study of the development of paedobaptism in the early church, one of the things that repeatedly emerges is the decisive importance of Augustine, particularly his anti-Pelagian writings. In one collection of patristic writings on baptism, all the material from the first four centuries occupies 44 pages, while material from Augustine alone reaches 60!

Prior to Augustine, there was astonishing diversity in certain aspects of the church’s baptismal theology and practice. Take, for instance, the 4th-century East. Not only do you have major figures like Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great getting baptized in their adult years, despite being born into Christian families, but you a wide range of other practices that don’t have any major contemporary analogue, such as Gregory’s counsel to baptize Christian children around the age of 3, when they can take in something of the mystery of baptism, even if not perfectly understand it.

I’m not claiming these early figures were like contemporary credobaptists. They were not. They had a far richer realism to their baptismal understanding. They thought it sanctified, cleansed, sealed, washed away sin, etc. But what is interesting is the extent to which early practices depart from all major views today. For instance, a huge pillar in Augustine’s defense of paedobaptism is the necessity of baptism to wash away original sin, and thus the certain damnation of infants who die apart from baptism. This was not an incidental feature of his paedobaptism, which could be discarded without alteration of its logic and force. On the contrary, it was an essential part of his polemic against the Pelagians, and remained an endemic characteristic of paedobaptism in the West for over a millennium.

Thus, intriguingly, the species of paedobaptism that eventually prevailed in the early church is one which, as such, almost no branch of the contemporary church maintains. Here is how David Wright, an accomplished scholar of baptism in the early church, puts it:

“It was Augustine who finally set the necessity of paedobaptism on an impregnable basis. But here lies the rub. For if at last the rite had found its theological rationale, it was one that today’s practitioners of infant baptism will scarcely be able to endorse, except perhaps to a very minor extent. We are left in the somewhat uncomfortable position of receiving the traditional observance from the early church, while at the same time rejecting the main planks of the theology in which the church of the Fathers found its conclusive justification” (David F. Wright, “How Controversial Was the Development of Infant Baptism?”, in Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective: Collected Studies [Paternoster, 2007], 42-43).

My overall feeling about baptism continues to be: we all have work to do. No matter what our practice, none of us can sit complacently back in it. Every single one of us has arrived at the current reality through an extremely interesting and circuitous route.

2 Comments

  1. I was Baptised as an adult and it was a very special experience…. As a Christian I am always finding there is more for me to learn about God. I love it. I am currently trying to find out about ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’… E.g. are they the same thing or not? I love wondering about spiritual things like this 😊 .. so that’s a whole new thing for me to learn about… enjoy your research about Baptisms. 😁

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  2. An interesting post, Gavin. No desire to debate this controversial subject (you being a Baptist pastor and me LCMS). However, I thought I might share one of the most convincing (to me, at least) patristic references which I know is already familiar to you.

    Tertullian, being a rigorist, recognized the importance of a life of active faith and holiness. In his treatise On Baptism, he carefully outlines his case for delaying baptism, since “they whose office it is, know that baptism is not rashly to be administered.”

    When citing his reasons, Tertullian fails to include the one that would make all else unnecessary. Standing relatively close to the Apostolic age, he does not mention in baptism of young children as being an “innovation.” On the contrary, the seriousness with which he treats the subject suggests he knew its roots could be traced back a very early date.

    Likewise, the baptism of such children would be their true, efficacious baptism.

    And, based on his sound but extra-biblical advice, we would delay baptism for everyone until after they are wed, or at least “fully strengthened for continence.”

    Thanks for the post.
    Rob Stroud

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