Justin Martyr: Ostensible Credobaptist

With respect to the history itself, I’ve generally been on the fence about the pedobaptism vs. credobaptism debate. As far back as Acts itself, evidence abounds that early Christian liturgical practice could vary in all sorts of ways from context to context, especially in the first few centuries. While certain hard-to-ignore data points have persuaded me that pedobaptism was never a universal norm, I’ve usually suspected that this probably happened in the second and third centuries with some frequency, and it might have been the norm depending on where you were.

Although I broadly stand by that assessment, I’ve been leaning in the last year toward a more decidedly credobaptist interpretation of the history. That is, the ideal practice was believer’s baptism. Now before my more magisterially-inclined friends begin hurling too much overripe produce in my direction, let me stress at the outset that there is still no slam-dunk, smoking gun quote from some patristic source, saying, “We never baptize infants” (though Tertullian comes in striking distance). This is a touchy subject that lies right at the heart of confessional identity (and personal experience, frankly) for many folks, so I say the following advisedly, not polemically. And again, we’re necessarily parsing scraps of incomplete evidence (welcome to ancient history).

That said, here’s an example of the sort of thing that has started to sway my thinking about the earlier centuries. Justin Martyr’s (active in Rome c. 140–165) later chapters in his First Apology are essentially ground zero in terms of our knowledge of earliest Christian liturgy (I plan to do another post on what his crucial witness to the earliest church services). Justin says the following about baptism:

And as for how we have dedicated ourselves to God, being made new through Christ . . . [textual corruption]: As many as would be persuaded and believe these truths that taught and said by us (i.e., here in this apology), and promise that they’re able to live in this manner, they are taught both to pray and to ask while fasting for God’s forgiveness of previously committed sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and in the manner of rebirth we ourselves were reborn, they are reborn. For in the name of the Father of all and master God, and of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit do they then perform the washing in water.[1]

We learned the reason for this (practice) from the apostles. Whereas we did not perceive our first birth—we have necessarily been born of fluid seed according to our parents’ sexual intercourse with each other—we have been in lousy habits and wicked upbringings. In order that we remain as children of neither (mere) necessity nor ignorance but of choice and knowledge, and so that we also obtain forgiveness of sins previously committed, in the water the name of the Father of all and Master God is pronounced over the one having chosen rebirth for himself and repented of what was sinned; this itself is the only thing said at the washing by the one bringing the washed person.[2]

A bit later, Justin adds, “And this washing is called ‘enlightenment,’ as the ones enlightened in thought are the ones learning these things.”[3]

So what is one to make of this?

Much like the Didache, Justin’s description certainly seems to assume a more mature initiate who knows what they’re doing. To repeat the obvious point made by others about this and similar liturgical documents, it’s rather unlikely infants are praying and fasting. Justin’s description assumes, at the very least, that the standard practice is non-infant baptism. This reading is strengthened in that he actively contrasts the ignorance of the first birth—“you had no idea what was happening in your conception and birth, nor had you any say in any of it”—with the deliberate choice and cognizance of baptism’s rebirth. For bonus points: his remark about bringing initiates to where there is water also suggests to me an expectation of immersion, and his strong emphasis on the initiate’s free will sits awkwardly with a more Augustinian-Calvinist understanding.

Now, keen readers may rightly point out that nothing here in itself proves infants or very young children were not baptized in the mid-second century. Rather, Justin’s testimony could simply indicate that children born to Christian parents were the exception to the rule of older converts. Demographically speaking, I tend to suspect that this is right as far as it goes: Justin probably saw more adult converts (like himself) than children born to Christian parents. Certainly, his remarks about “lousy habits and wicked upbringings” seem to set Christian-born children aside and presume some sort of conversion. And so, the critic might argue, infant baptism became all the more prominent as the empire Christianizes until you get authorities like Augustine and the Cappadocians making the more direct insistence upon it c. 400, and then we’re well on our way to Christendom. All of that’s still plausible.

Where it doesn’t persuade me in this case: Justin certainly knew plenty of people who were indeed born to Christian parents. If you look at the Acts of Justin, which recounts his martyrdom along with six of his students, at least two of the figures involved (Euelpistos and Paion) explicitly claim that they received their Christianity from their parents.[4] Paion actually goes as far as to use the first-person plural “we learned it from our parents,” which is interesting, insofar as Justin, the main protagonist, does not use the “royal we” himself that I have noticed. Is Paion speaking for the group essentially saying, “Most of us were born to Christian parents”? Pushing the information further gets dicey, but for the sake of thoroughness, I note that there appears to be a sibling pair here as well, Chariton and Charito (or possibly father and daughter). Perhaps they learned Christianity from their parents as well. The prefect doesn’t ask, though at one point, after hearing from Euelpistos and Paion, he does turn to the next in line, Hierax, simply asks him directly about his own parents. Hierax merely says that his parents are back in Cappadocia, adding nothing about whether they were Christians themselves.

Taking this anecdote as conservatively as possible, then, two of the seven were born to Christian parents. If this tiny sampling accurately reflects larger Christian demographics (a big “if”), that would align with the suspicion above that most Christians were adult converts like Justin rather than Euelpistos and Paion. In any case and more importantly, it speaks to Justin’s own circle more directly, and here the sampling must be much more secure. That is, Justin seems to have known at least a sizable minority of Christians born to Christian parents; they were hardly uncommon in his world, in a place like Rome.

It seems there are three possible ways to make sense of Justin’s words historically.

  1. Altogether, Justin’s framing is highly idiosyncratic and divorced from the liturgical realities because he’s an oddball Christian philosopher. He basically doesn’t know what he’s talking about for the larger Christian community, so his testimony is next to useless.
  2. Infant baptism was common and expected in his second-century world, but for whatever reason (e.g., demographic proportions perhaps), he still chose to explain the practice as an essentially adult activity.
  3. Justin knew very well that many Christians were born to Christian parents. He describes the rite as an adult practice precisely because that was the expectation for the children of Christian parents and for older converts (e.g., himself) alike.

For plain reasons, the first option doesn’t cut much ice with me: I don’t like throwing out our only witnesses needlessly, especially when there are other indication that Justin was not just some oddball doing his own thing with his study group. While the second interpretation remains plausible, it still makes Justin into a kind of sloppy eyewitness whose theorization of baptism was a ways removed from the realities. Thus, the third option strikes me as most persuasive, though one must further acknowledge his line about being born into “bad habits” still seems to leave Christian parentage out of the equation, when we know for a fact that these cases were not uncommon. Even so, that Justin clearly knew plenty of people born into Christian families but still frames baptism as an essentially adult activity tilts the scale for me anyway. Had pedobaptism been more the norm, then I think he would have had to write the description in the First Apology much differently than he did in order to include the sizable minority.

  1. Translations are my own. Ὃν τρόπον δὲ καὶ ἀνεθήκαμεν ἑαυτοὺς τῷ θεῷ, καινοποιηθέντες διὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ †ἐξηγησόμεθα ὅπως μὴ τοῦτο παραλιπόντες δόξωμεν πονηρεύειν τι ἐν τῇ ἐξηγήσει† ὅσοι ἂν πεισθῶσι καὶ πιστεύωσιν ἀληθῆ ταῦτα τὰ ὑφ’ ἡμῶν διδασκόμενα καὶ λεγόμενα εἶναι, καὶ βιοῦν οὕτως δύνασθαι ὑπισχνῶνται, εὔχεσθαί τε καὶ αἰτεῖν νηστεύοντας παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῶν προημαρτημένων ἄφεσιν διδάσκονται, ἡμῶν συνευχομένων καὶ συννηστευόντων αὐτοῖς. ἔπειτα ἄγονται ὑφ’ ἡμῶν ἔνθα ὕδωρ ἐστί, καὶ τρόπον ἀναγεννήσεως ὃν καὶ ἡμεῖς αὐτοὶ ἀνεγεννήθημεν ἀναγεννῶνται. ἐπ’ ὀνόματος γὰρ τοῦ πατρὸς τῶν ὅλων καὶ δεσπότου θεοῦ καὶ τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου τὸ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι τότε λουτρὸν ποιοῦνται· To see the fuller context, see starting at First Apology 61, available here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.x.ii.iii.html.
  2. καὶ λόγον δὲ εἰς τοῦτο παρὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων ἐμάθομεν τοῦτον· ἐπειδὴ τὴν πρώτην γένεσιν ἡμῶν ἀγνοοῦντες καὶ κατ’ ἀνάγκην γεγεννήμεθα ἐξ ὑγρᾶς σπορᾶς κατὰ μίξιν τὴν τῶν γονέων πρὸς ἀλλήλους καὶ ἐν ἔθεσι φαύλοις καὶ πονηραῖς ἀνατροφαῖς γεγόναμεν, ὅπως μὴ ἀνάγκης τέκνα μηδὲ ἀγνοίας μένωμεν, ἀλλὰ προαιρέσεως καὶ ἐπιστήμης, ἀφέσεώς τε ἁμαρτιῶν ὑπὲρ ὧν προημάρτομεν τύχωμεν, ἐν τῷ ὕδατι ἐπονομάζεται τῷ ἑλομένῳ ἀναγεννηθῆναι καὶ μετανοήσαντι ἐπὶ τοῖς ἡμαρτημένοις τὸ τοῦ πατρὸς τῶν ὅλων καὶ δεσπότου θεοῦ ὄνομα, αὐτὸ τοῦτο μόνον ἐπιλέγοντος τοῦ τὸν λουσόμενον ἄγοντος ἐπὶ τὸ λουτρόν.
  3. καλεῖται δὲ τοῦτο τὸ λουτρὸν φωτισμός, ὡς φωτιζομένων τὴν διάνοιαν τῶν ταῦτα μανθανόντων.
  4. See the Acts of Justin 4. Reading in Greek, I was looking chiefly at the A and B recensions of this document.


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