Posted by: stpowen | August 13, 2010

Historical take on baptism

Historical Take on Baptism

 Over on the Puritan Board (1), one brother, a Mr Turner, has tried a new take on the Paedo/Credo baptism battle, namely, an historical one.  Before commencing his main argument, he writes:- 

 Credos and paedos do not see the same amount of continuity between circumcision and baptism, but at the root of it all both sides at least recognize that circumcision and baptism are similar in that they symbolically represent the sign and seal of entry into God’s covenant(s).

 I have to take issue with this immediately.  Because something is written in the Westminster Confession, it doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Baptism is never described in the Bible as the ‘seal’ of anything.  The Holy Spirit is the seal of the New Covenant ( Eph 2:13; 2Cor 1:22).  Nor indeed was circumcision a seal of anything to anyone except Abraham, as a glance at Rom 4:11 will tell you.  And even to Abraham, circumcision was not the seal of the covenant but the seal of the righteousness of his faith which he had before he was circumcised.

 However, this is a digression.  The brother continues:-

 From a purely historical perspective, it would seem a very reasonable question to ask where the documentation is for specifically withholding children from the symbolic entry into the covenant since, again, it had been the practice for millennia to include them.

 What covenant is being referred to here?  Not the New Covenant, and not the Covenant of Grace according to the WCF Larger Catechism (Question 31).  They were being brought into the Mosaic covenant which could save nobody and is described by Paul as a ‘ministration of death’ (2Cor 3:7).  Why do paedobaptists think that was such a great thing?

Mr Turner continues,

   Furthermore, a serious matter exists that if indeed it was explicitly taught in the early church that Christians were not to baptize their children, the historian would expect that era to reveal an outpouring of questions raised as to why and subsequent contemporary instruction directed specifically to answer these questions.

 Arguments from silence carry limited weight but had it not also not been the practice for millennia not to circumcise girls?  Where is the documentation for that innovation?  Where are the arguments and the raised questions?  The answer to both questions lies in the Old Testament prophecies of the New Covenant.  Joel  had prophesied that both men and women would receive the greater outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21), and Jeremiah had fortold (Jer 31:31ff) that in the New Covenant everyone would know the Lord, unlike the situation under the Old Covenant where only a very few Israelites had a relationship with Jehovah (Isaiah 1:9; Jer 5:1-2).  A new covenant was prophesied and all devout Jews knew it was coming, and would bring about major changes (3).  When it came, those who believed therefore accepted those changes.  Of coure, not all of them fully understood or accepted the changes.  We have the judaizers of Acts 15, and it appears from Acts 21:20 that the Christian Jews in Jerusalem were still in the habit of circumcising their male infants into the Mosaic Covenant and then baptizing them as and when they confessed faith in Christ.  That doubtless continued until the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Mr Turner continues:-

 Now the credo position may very well ask for historical proof of the opposite, namely documentation of explicit infant baptism in the NT. But the historian must no doubt deal with precedent here. There was always a precedent of including children in the covenant so it would seem, all theological arguments aside, that the burden of proof lies on the removal of children from the practice rather than the inclusion of children.

 Mr Turner keeps on referring to ‘the covenant’ without specifying which one he means.  The point is that with the coming of the Messiah, we have a new covenant, with a new covenant membership, which had been well trailed in the Old Testament.  The New Covenant children of God are born, ‘Not of blood’ (John 1:13); they all know the Lord (Heb 8:11 etc).  We learn of the Samaritans that, ‘When they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning….Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized’ (Acts 8:12).  There is the new order of things.  faith comes first, and then the covenant sign, to both men and women.  Loads of innovation there, not least the sign being given to believing women.  In the Bible circumcision is never ever connected with anyone’s faith save Abraham’s, but in the New Covenant, faith is a requisite (cf. Eph 4:5).  Of course, the largemajority of Jews did not accept the changes.  They rejected Christ and His message, rejected the New Covenant and continued to circumcise their male infants as they do to this very day.

 Secondly, on the other side of the cannon being closed we must travel well over 1000 years after the institution of the New Covenant to find any solid examples of exclusive practice of credobaptism in the church. This again, carries a historical weight that must be dealt with.

 Well, where do you find covenant baptism before the Reformation?  Almost to a man, the Fathers believed in baptismal regeneration.  Shall we believe in that for historical reasons?  God Forbid!  However, there is good historical evidence that infant baptism was a practice that came in gradually over several centuries.  The first two Church Fathers who make mention of baptism (the Didache and Justin Martyr) have clearly never heard of infant baptism since they make no provision for it.  The first writer to mention it, Tertullian, is opposed to it.  Thereafter a number of Fathers write about it as an existing practice,  but Cyril of Jerusalem (310-386), who writes extensively about baptism does not seem to mention infants (2).  It is also significant that Augustine of Hippo was not baptized as an infant although his mother was a Christian.  likewise, John Chrysostom and the Cappadocian fathers were baptized as adults.  It is clear that paedobaptism was not established firmly until some time in the 5th Century and even then it was done because of thedoctrine of baptismal regeneration.  It was believed that baptism was essential for salvation and that therefore unbaptized babies could not go to heaven.

 After that time, it is in the dissident groups that we hear of Credobaptism, and most of the documentation comes from their persecutors.  The Paulicians certainly practised it in the 9th Century (though that is not necessarily a recommendation).  The Petrobusians (followers of Peter de Bruys) were credobaptists in the 12th Century and suffered for it terribly.  At least some of the Waldensians did not baptize infants and in 1463, we read of Waldensians, Hussites and others coming together for a general gathering in Moravia.  They called themselves the Unitas Fratrum or United Brethren.  One of the first things they did was to baptize by immersion all those adults who had not been previously baptized as believers.

 These groups were outlaws, fleeing the persecution of the established Church.  There is some evidence for secret baptistic churches in England before the Reformation, but they were hounded to extinction by the authorities.  Details are very sketchy.  I firmly believe that more research would reveal a great tribe of martyrs who resisted the church of Rome and held to baptism according to the Bible, but enough is known for certain to show that credobaptism continued in pockets here and there throughout the Dark Ages.


 (2) So I believe.  I cannot claim to have read all of Cyril’s work on baptism.

(3) The New Covenant was to be, ‘Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers’ (Jer 31:32 etc.).



  1. Thank you Martin. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I’ve only read briefly over your post but will return and examine more carefully as time allows.

    If I may shed a little light on the “behind the scenes” of my post…

    I am in no way an expert on baptism, covenant paedo theology, or reformed credo theology. I am simply a layman in a church where the elders have recently shifted their position on baptism. So I have begun to study the matter for myself.

    Having come to Christ previously under the wings of a presbyterian church I completely understand that there is an element of paedo “default” to my exposure of teachings around baptism. But I can honestly say that I have no real agenda here other than to study and know truth. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m not trying to squeeze the Bible into some systematic, nor do I desire to throw the baby out with the bathwater (no pun intended) when it comes to rightly understanding the relationships between God’s covenants.

    To be clear, I really find the theological approach and conclusions of both sides to be impressive. But this again is why I wanted to take a breather of sorts and simply examine the history of the matter. And though I may add to the list of my deficiencies since I am also no learned historian, a cursory look at the subject seems to provide little to be excited about from the credo perspective. Well, so far anyway.

    That is all really.

    I understand why you may not want to post much on the PB (hence my own opening disclaimer) but I am thankful that you responded nonetheless.

    God bless,

  2. Dear Martin,

    It is common knowledge that Presbyterians have a Roman Catholic view of baptism which they see as a seal of covenant entrance, thus a seal of presumed salvation. However, this is a great break with Reformed doctrine which viewed baptism, as per the Scriptures, as a pointer to the covenant of grace and salvation and not as its seal. One is baptised unto the forgiveness of sins, one is not baptised so that this forgiveness is sealed. This, of course, speaks for Biblical household baptisms rather than the baptism of individual, adult believers only. The usual Baptist view is akin to the usual Presbyterians view, however, that baptism comes as a final seal on the process of salvation. Dear Martin, you are an exception here which opens the doors of my heart to you.

    When Turner speaks of the covenant, he is speaking about an exact WA Standards interpretation with which neither you nor I agree. However, instead of stating this and refuting this, you confuse the issue by mentioning, besides Turner’s view, a New Covenant (as you interpret it), a Covenant of Grace (as you interpret it) and a Mosaic Covenant (as you interpret it). Then you place all those who believe in the Reformed and Biblical doctrine of baptism (i.e. your non-Baptist brethren) in the same boat and give them the false name of ‘paedobaptists’, though you would reject the equivalent term ooraiobaptists (grownupbaptists), both terms not being found in Scripture. There the majority rule is obviously that baptism is for first generation believers and those in their household.

    I think you have misunderstood Mr Turner on the New Covenant as you appear to interpret ‘New’ as being post-resurrection and Turner sees the Church, like John Gill and the old Particular Baptists, as been present since the Fall. So, too, prophecy must be meaningful to those to whom the prophesy comes and when the OT prophets spoke of the New Covenant, it was meaningful to believing Jews and they were enabled by God’s grace, like Abraham, to accept it. Much of what you write concerning circumcision and baptism is flawed because you do not deal with the nature of the Church. Read Baptist John Gill on the efficacy of
    the atonement for the faith of the OT saints. This was not accomplished in time as a post-OT event, but in the fullness of time to which past, present, and future look.

    Your denial of household baptisms in the Early Church is, as I have striven to explain earlier, faulty. Tertullian, for instance, is not recorded against baptising the children of established believers but for delaying the baptism of all proselytes whether adult or infant. So, too, he refers to various modes of baptism which are far from ‘Baptist’. He had also a different view of faith and the Church to that of the Baptists (and me, for that matter). So why han your coat on a loose hook? Family baptisms, including children in arms, as pioneer ‘Baptists’ like Robinson and Simons confess were practised in the Early Church. They confessed this but said the Early Church was wrong. The earliest Christian infant graves known testify to the fact that the occupants had been baptised.

    The Fathers distinguished between ‘regeneration’ which meant being put in the way of Christian teaching and ‘renewal’ or ‘new birth’ which meant conversion. This is made very clear in the old writers you mention. This must, in all fairness, be explained. However, our Reformers such as Jewel also made this quite clear. Baptists have misquoted and misrepresented the ancients and our Reformers on this matter ever since. Further more, baptismal regeneration in the Roman Catholic sense is practised by many Baptists, too.

    Your last remark was interesting but works both ways.

    I came out of hospital yesterday being operated on for a double-rupture and much liquid floating about in my tummy and am still black and blue owing to my strong blood-thinners and have trouble sitting so I shall keep this, for me, short. Thank you so much for your private best wishes.

    Much endeared to you and your honest stand,


  3. Hello Michael,
    Thank you for your kind and friendly post. It seemed to me at the time that no one was replying to your PB thread which is why I wrote my little article, but since then the discussion there has hotted up.
    There is much that we would wish to know about baptism in the very early church which is not recorded for us. We might feel that it would be helpful to know what Clement of Rome or Ignatius had to say about the matter, but the Lord has not seen fit to supply this information.

    There is no doubt that infant ‘baptism’ came into the Church at an early date, but as I say in my article, the first two writers who touch upon baptism know only that applied to adult disciples, and Tertullian, who does mention the infant variety, is opposed to it. If I could find mention of infant ‘baptism’ in the New Testament, these facts would be irrelevant, but in view of the total silence of the Scriptures on the subject, I deem it to be conclusive.

    I wish you every blessing in your studies concerning baptism. I believe that the key question is the relationship of baptism to circumcision. If baptism is the successor to circumcision, then perhaps a case can be made for it to be applied to infants (though IMHO Jer 31:31ff would still contradict it). However, as I write elsewhere, I believe that circumcision and baptism signify very different things.

    I strongly recommend The Divine Covenants by A. W. Pink for further study. Let me say finally that I do not believe the Baptism Question to be one of the first importance. The Lord has seen fit to bless the ministries of faithful ministers of bothe persuasions. It is the doctrine of Presumptive Regeneration that I find more worrying.

  4. Hello George,

    You write,

    ‘Further more, baptismal regeneration in the Roman Catholic sense is practised by many Baptists, too.’

    This is surely Campbellism which I would regard as a sub-Christian cult. In truth there are all sorts of aberrant beliefs held by Baptists, Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. The reason that I singled Presumptive Regeneration out for critique is that its supporters masquerade as Reformed folk.

    That Tertullian had some very weird theological views, I fully accept. However, he is still the first Church father to mention infant baptism, and he is opposed to it. If you wish, you may imagine that everyone else in 200AD was perfectly orthodox and he was the only errorist, but that is impossible to prove. The graves that you mention date from well after 200.

    As I read Justin Martyr, he seems to use ‘regeneration’ as a synonym for ‘baptism.’ Whether he actually means that is maybe debateable but that is the only way that I can read him. I confess to not being an expert on the Fathers, but they all seem to me to take the same view, that of Baptismal Regeneration. If ever I were to become a paedobaptist, I think I would have to become a Roman Catholic. I don’t find the Reformed view of baptism anywhere before Bucer and Calvin. I find Believers’ Baptism in the Bible.

  5. Dear Martin,
    Just a quickie before I go off to England.

    Your $1. Very many Reformed Christians preach to presumed born again Christians. My experience is that this is done more in Baptist circles than non-Baptist Reformed circles. These are not Cambellites. Remember when Fuller was canvasing for money for the Baptist Missionary Society among Anglicans and he criticised his generous hosts for believing in presumed regeneration, which none of them did. Nevertheless, they asked Fuller to pray and he prayed as if everyone around him were saved. Richmond Legh merely smilesd and told him that there did not seem much to separate him from his ‘Anglicans’.

    Concerning Tertullian, he is not the man for you to pin your hopes on. I have knocked together the following for you:

    Tertullian on Baptism

    Tertullian ( c.160/70-c.215/20) cited in favour of believer’s baptism only
    Baptists invariably put forward third century Tertullian as the first major writer who spoke out for a conditional delay in baptism for families who had recently been proselytised. Baptists ignore what he has to say about delaying adult baptisms and apply his words merely to infant Baptisms, then claiming that Tertullian rejected infant baptism. However, to delay the baptism of believing adults and their children is not the same as not baptising them at all.
    Baptists, however, argue that Tertullian gives ample proof that what he calls infant baptism was a late innovation, separating artificially what Tertullian has to say about infants from what he has to say about adults on the very same lines. They thus conclude that Tertullian was a fierce opponent of the infant baptism which they say was now coming into vogue.

    Viewing Tertullian in context
    Most of these Baptists rejecters of household baptisms use De baptisto, written around 200-6 on which to base their argument, which they give in various translations, each with a Baptist slant.

    “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. For what need is there, if not so urgent, that the sponsors also should be brought into danger, being as they are themselves also by reason of their mortality capable of falling short of their promises and being deceived by the development of an evil disposition? The Lord indeed says etc.”

    We conclude:

    1. Here is a plea to discuss baptism according to the special circumstances of the baptismal candidates.
    2. A postponement is suggested for all ages within this particular circumstance.
    3. Baptism is seen as dependent on the perseverance in faith of the sponsors.
    4. In particular, the plea is to postpone early baptism in children of a special circumstance on the grounds that such children are innocent as it is and thus need no sin-cleansing via baptism
    5. As one cannot entrust earthly possessions to children, one should not entrust them with heavenly possessions.
    6. Only complete faith is a precondition of baptism.

    The conclusions Baptists make from this is that Tertullian is speaking about the baptising of children with their parents as a novelty. I repeat, if this were the case, believing parents’ baptism would be a novelty, too. However, Tertullian is merely arguing that when proselytes come to faith, one should be cautious about baptising them too soon.

    Baptists overlook the fact that Tertullian had a magical view of baptism yet claim that here is proof of adult baptism only. Yet it is a demonstrable fact that Tertullian was one of the very first writers of whom we know to teach that baptism actually washes sins away and the first to prescribe delayed baptism until the alleged initial stage of innocence has past. It is thus quite clear that in Tertullian, we have the first real example of baptism practised as a superstitious and magical rite. Is this the ritualistic road Baptists wish to pursue? Baptist Warns tells us that Tertullian’s words are a sharp protest against baptising the children of believers and “protest is the plainest proof that infant baptism was not regarded as an apostolic usage”. This is, of course, a piece of wishful thinking quite void of substance. We must note:

    1. This text is part of a wider argument concerning all recent converts to the faith. Postponement is recommended for all but especially children and certain classes of adult professors. The very fact that Tertullian is talking about postponement shows that he is suggesting a breech with age-old practice for the sake of special circumstances. We can only conclude that up to the beginning of the third century AD, such postponements were not known to Tertullian. He is not emphasising an ancient practice but recommending a new one. Tertullian was constantly battling with criticism that he was introducing novelties into the Christian faith. As Tertullian believed in a prophetic extension of revelation beyond Scripture, his ‘novelties’ were, for him, all in the Divine programme. Tertullian, when giving his views on baptism, confesses repeatedly that he is either making new, utility rules or going beyond what the Scriptures teach. This is seen by van Braght and other secondary sources used by D’Anvers, and also the modern publishers of The Bloody Theatre, but this fact appears to have escaped most Baptists, though they otherwise look to van Braght and D’Anvers for their history of early baptism.
    2. That baptism is dependent on the perseverance of faith of the sponsors may reflect on the sponsors’ baptisms but not on that of the baptism they witness. Furthermore, this can hardly be a Baptist argument as sponsors in Baptist baptism are not held responsible for the faith of the baptised. The very mention of sponsors at the baptism of believer’s children point to the fact that such baptisms were an established fact before Tertullian’s time, indeed Mueller, who has obviously no axe to grind regarding infant baptism, points out that the use of sponsors for delayed or adult baptism from the fourth century onwards was a leftover from the original rite of infant baptism. In the case of adult baptism, the sponsors duties were to speak on behalf of the candidate and make responses for those unable because of illness or other disability to speak for themselves. The sponsors also assisted the officiating minister in performing the rite.
    3. The idea that baptism ought to be postponed where innocence reigns is hardly a Baptist – or a Christian – argument as the Scriptures teach that all have sinned. Moreover, baptism does not, according to Scripture, cleanse of itself but points to the cleansing gained through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, commonly spoken of in theology as His active and passive obedience. However, there is a strong feeling amongst many Baptists that children are regenerate, though not by faith. Thus to avoid the embarrassment of logically baptising children, they postulate a way of salvation outside of faith and baptism. In this sense, Baptists are really anti-Baptist. However, once again Tertullian shows that he is not merely dealing with infant baptism here as, in the context, , Tertullian also pleads especially for postponing the baptism of unmarried adults, thus showing his own departure from the Biblical nature of baptism. This goes quite contrary to the Biblical accounts of Paul’s and the eunuch’s baptisms.
    6. The idea that only perfect faith is the condition for salvation would rule out not only children but most ‘adults’ or ‘believers’ also. This is perhaps why Tertullian recommends delaying baptism for all ages, apparently thinking that the older one is, the less are the dangers that one might sin after baptism. Such a sin for the Montanists and Novatianists, i.e. those close to Tertullian, removed a person permanently from the arms of the true church.
    7. It must not be forgotten that Tertullian, in context, is not challenging the orthodox here but striving to give a rational argument for the baptism of new proselyte families against the views of the Cainite sect who reject baptism altogether, whether of infants or believers. Tertullian thus opens his treatise on baptism with the words:

    “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! A treatise on this matter will not be superfluous; instructing not only such as are just becoming formed (in the faith), but them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in mind), through ignorance, an untried though probable faith. The consequence is, that a viper of the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism. Which is quite in accordance with nature; for vipers and asps and basilisks themselves generally do affect arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes, after the example of our IXTHUS Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water!”

    Tertullian’s novelty provides no Biblical reason for delaying baptism
    The obvious comment on Baptist speculations concerning Tertullian is that they neither provide us with a Biblical basis for denying covenant baptism nor for affirming believer’s baptism only. Here we encounter three highly un-Biblical traditions which have crept into the Christian church:
    a. Children are thought innocent,
    b. Baptism is only to be undergone when the baptised is sure that he is perfect and can sin no more,
    c. Tertullianists have a new revelation from the Spirit to delay baptism also in the case of those more prone to sin. Infants, according to this erroneous view, are not to be baptised as they have no need of non-existent sins being washed away. Adults must put all their sins behind them before baptism so as not to annul their baptism at a later date. This is presumably why the unmarried are advised not to be baptised – even as believers – because they are not yet in the safe harbour of marriage where temptations, Tertullian supposes, will be less. Furthermore, if Tertullian had known of others before him who had delayed baptism of believers’ children, unmarried adults and those who had not yet ceased to sin, he would have certainly made use of this to strengthen his position by affirming its Apostolic character. Tertullian, however, pretends no such thing but merely relies on the utility of delay because of prevalent necessities.

    Tertullian’s novelty is far from being believer’s baptism
    Thus Tertullian’s baptism is not so much for repentant sinners, nor for converted believers but for those who are in a state of sinless perfection. Here, Tertullian is obviously striving to bring discipline into his ideal church by altering the church’s ordinances. To see here proof that covenant families were not baptised in apostolic times is, once again, standing Scripture and history on their heads. Tertullian is clearly not only saying, “We are in different circumstances, we must adopt a different discipline”, he is saying, “We now have new insight into baptism as a seal of perfection.” He never argues that his new discipline reflects Scriptural or Apostolic authority, indeed, he admits that it does not, nor does he believe it necessary.
    So, too, Tertullian exercises a great deal of liberty in the mode of baptism. Though the early church leader might be thought a defender of immersion because of his highly sacramental idea of being cleansed from sin, he nevertheless uses the term sprinkling interchangeably with immersion for the rite. Furthermore, he opens Chapter 7 of On Baptism by likening the rite at the font to the anointing of an Old Testament priest where oil was poured out from a horn, though he also refers to being plunged in water. In Chapter 9, Tertullian likens the waters of baptism to the Red Sea and the water which came out of the rock. It would appear that Tertullian did not see the amount of water as being of sacramental value but merely the fact that water was used, signifying cleansing.

    Concerning §3. Justin does not see baptism as regeneration in your interpretation of it but that regeneration is putting a child in the way of the gospel and, according to the Great Commission this starts with the teaching aspect of baptism. It is part of the process of making disciples. Most of the Ancient Fathers saw Baptism as a didactic event in the life of the believer’s duty to his family. You might add that the child’s parents were not baptised as children. This is an invalid argument as baptism started with the heads of families according to the covenant with Abraham which is continued throughout all time. This is what caused Zacarias to praise the Lord and John to jump for joy in his mother’s womb.

    By the way, both Bucer and Calvin rejected the novelty of what Hiscox calls Baptist Brinciples, so we must ask Baptist Good’s question ‘Are Baptists Reformed? Good is not quite sure.

    Now I must be off,


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