Baptismal Trajectories in Early Christianity, Part III: Toward an Explanation

This article is the final in a series of three on the question of baptismal practices in early Christianity. My aim here is to offer conjectures about how baptism may have functioned in this period. Part I traced the basic limits of our historical knowledge and considers one strand of evidence from Second Temple Judaism that has some bearing on the problem. Part II analyzed some of the less-than-dispositive clues left by early Christians themselves, from the New Testament era through about the third century. The present Part III considers later patristic trends, notes an interesting point of contact between Augustine’s context and that of the later Anabaptists, and finally presents a broader theory of the case.

Delaying Baptism

The early Christian habit of hyper-delayed baptism is well attested by the later fourth century. Apparently, the reasoning behind waiting until fairly late in life was that baptism cleansed sin once and only once. Consequently, any meaningful sin after baptism could leave one in a serious lurch in the economy of salvation. Earlier in the fourth century, Constantine himself had delayed baptism to his deathbed. Nor was he alone:

Such great leaders of the fourth-century church as Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, and many others were grown before they were baptized. In fact, in the fourth century the delay of baptism became a problem. The feeling developed that such a powerful sacrament which brought forgiveness of all sins should not be utilized too early but reserved until a time when the maximum benefits could be secured. This was, of course, a one-sided and distorted understanding of the doctrine of baptism, and church leaders protested against this delay. But this misunderstanding is hardly the reason that sons of bishops, such as Gregory of Nazianzus, or children from the homes with the longest Christian heritage and deepest spiritual piety, such as that from which Basil came, were not baptized as infants. The extraordinary delay of baptism was a perversion of the usual practice of allowing children to reach a responsible age before being baptized rather than a revolutionary phenomenon.[1]

Especially in the last sentence, Ferguson flashes some of his own theological prejudices, but his basic point stands: even well-catechized Christian families followed this practice, which makes for an interesting point of comparison with the funerary inscriptions discussed in Part II of this series. Here, St. Augustine’s story has also become something of a locus classicus. In Confessions 1.11, Augustine gently chides the practice of delay, reporting how he nearly died of a stomach malady in his youth, but his otherwise earnestly devoted Christian mother would not let him be baptized for fear that he would recover and sin later in life. Famously, this bothered Augustine, and his views certainly anticipated (if not determined) later Christian practice in both Catholic and Protestant circles.

Exactly how and when hyper-delayed baptism became a habit among Christians remains unclear. It is a particularly interesting phenomenon in that it later fell out of favor but also because it lacks precedent in the New Testament and the other kinds of early sources considered in Part II. Some surmise that disputes over penitential procedure (e.g. what’s a bishop to do with a contrite adulterer or apostate?) played a key role here. Rigorists of proto-orthodox and sectarian groups alike frowned upon efforts to reincorporate the lapsed–Tertullian, Novatian, Hippolytus, Donatus, and Melitius are all examples of such an attitude. In opposing the development of penitential praxis as a poor half-measure, some of these voices increasingly stressed the singular nature of baptism. Baptism alone cleansed sin, and a person only got one such opportunity. To oversimplify: the rigorists tended to exalt baptism while their more forgiving counterparts invented penance to handle new challenges. One can see how the practice of delaying baptism might arise as a natural extension of the rigorist theology, but here we must tread lightly. A writer like Hippolytus could endorse both pedobaptism and rigorism simultaneously. Again, the overall situation is quite opaque by the later third and fourth centuries.

The opacity, however, may signal an important historical reality. Fortunately for later scholars of early Christianity, the Church Fathers love to complain, not least about the perceived failing of other Christians to uphold a particular view of orthodoxy/orthopraxy, and we have plenty of cases where matters of communal participation and membership were fiercely disputed and policed. Although the delay of baptism was fairly common, we have (to my knowledge) no substantial complaint about delayed baptism until Augustine.

Pedobaptists often suppose that, until delayed baptism became common, it was universally or at least overwhelmingly expected that those born into the Christian community were quickly baptized. But why, in that case, did no one register the shift? To be sure, our evidence for ancient history is generally pretty thin. Perhaps the silence on the issue is simply an odd lacuna, but that suggestion is rather unpersuasive given how much theology (and heresiology specifically) has survived from the Fathers. If such a dramatic change occurred, it seems implausible that it failed to register. True, absence of evidence does not necessarily equate to evidence of absence, and so we can only speculate. As we saw in Part II, however, we do in fact have some positive evidence that Christian tradition and practice were often variegated and inconsistent on baptism in the first place. This may mean the most significant takeaway is a negative one: neither credobaptism nor pedobaptism (as currently understood) represent some “original” mode of catholic Christianity.

Conjectures About Earliest Christian Practice

This brings us to the crux of the problem: why did apostolic Christian practice give way to such diversity so early on?

Let us cautiously propose an overly simplified model which is probably wrong in certain particulars but still helpful in conceptualizing the historical possibilities and theological impulses at play. Let us imagine that most Jewish Christians in the first and early second century still practiced circumcision, kept kosher, observed important days in the Jewish calendar, went to the Temple before 70 AD, etc. not because they thought it “saved” them—although we can imagine some of a more Pharisaic flavor who may have (cf. Acts 15:5)—but out of tradition and habits of faithfulness. (All Christian traditions have their own comparable practices of this sort.) Continuity with these deeper cultural and sometimes theological rhythms of Judaism, which in toto we might call a religious “mentality,” would have alleviated psychological pressure about the status of their children. “Of course our children are safe in the judgment of the Lord,” they might have said. “We keep all the other practices that other Christians do, and we also maintain the old markers—moral, ritual, cultural—that God’s people have kept for centuries going back to Moses and Abraham. There’s no question that our family belongs to God and his Messiah.” Additionally, it may have been these originally Jewish instincts that reassured early Christians about the status of deceased children before a merciful God. On these grounds, we can easily envision that baptism might be delayed until catechesis could occur at an age of accountability, much like the Jews from the Qumran community.

Meanwhile, we might discern that Christian assemblies in predominantly Gentile communities around the Mediterranean face a rather different set of traditions and patterns. In the Greco-Roman mystery cults, children and slaves could be initiated alongside free adults. The Apostle Paul often seems anxious to break any parallels between the Church and such cults, but we can perhaps imagine a scenario in which first-generation Gentile parents were themselves anxious about their children. “I’ve been initiated into this new cultus but my children have not. What happens if they die young, like so many children do, before they can be baptized?” One can picture the problem, and we know for a fact that converts had such rudimentary concerns. Consider, for comparison, Paul’s efforts to allay Thessalonian angst about those who have died before Jesus’ return. While the Thessalonians’ worries may confuse those of us more acculturated to Christian cosmology and theology, it makes perfect sense for Gentiles coming with pagan presuppositions in good faith to this entirely new worldview. Emigrating from a religious system where the gods operate along arbitrary, vindictive lines which are at best quid pro quo almost certainly left certain marks in the religious mentality.

The old gods were, in some sense, also considerably weaker than the God of Israel. On the particular matter of resurrection, Aeschylus famously had Apollo scoff in the Eumenides that even Zeus’ hands were tied when it came to matters of death and afterlife: “When a man dies, once the dust sops up his blood, there is no resurrection.”[2] Such concerns about the basic mechanics of the divine might also explain Paul’s cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 15:29 about baptism “on behalf of the dead,” a practice he neither explicitly condemns, approves, or otherwise explains. Having read the familial urgency of the epitaphs in Part II, we may suspect that “the dead” in this case may very well have included young children or infants. Particularly if there was no fixed rule against infant baptism, one can easily see how Gentile parents would want to hasten the process along for their family to ensure all bases were covered.

Obviously, there are real gaps in this reconstruction. That said, it does highlight the leap that conversion to Christianity would have entailed for Gentiles, who quickly became the demographic majority in early Christianity. Once converts had a better sense of the divine economy, the urge to baptize young children would have lessened for subsequent generations. In the course of the next few centuries, church practice varied by community. Some, like Tertullian, probably insisted on catechesis and testing prior to baptism. Others probably pointed to the apparent precedent of the Apostles themselves in the book of Acts, where whole familiae converted with the result that they baptized infants and young children as new members of Christian households. By the third century, some Christians began to hold off baptism until later in life: a development which likely had something to do with ongoing dispute about penance and the regulation of the Christian community. Despite its predominance in later Christian practice, pedobaptism was not a universal norm or expectation. At the same time, it is also very difficult to read credobaptism back into the theology and practice of the earliest Christians as standardized procedure.

Conclusion: Theological Trajectories

At least in the Western tradition, this all naturally brings Augustine again to mind. Without venturing a summary of all Augustinian theology, we should note one major thread in his thinking that relates closely to his context at the turn of the fifth century: the question of Christianity’s relation to wider Roman society. Influenced by his own dramatic biography, Augustine is notoriously pessimistic about the human condition, which is connected both to his view of the Church’s relation to wider Roman society and his view of baptism. Along these lines, some have discerned in Augustine a defense of “Christian mediocrity” against ascetic extremes. Concomitantly, he expects the institutional church and its sacraments to take in Roman society writ-large: get the sorry sinful mass of humanity into church and get them access to God’s grace.

On baptism, then, Augustine offers an interesting parallel to the later Anabaptist movement, albeit one that runs decidedly in the opposite direction. Not only did Anabaptists oppose infant baptism, but they have tended toward a far more adversarial view of wider society than magisterial Protestants. For Augustine and the Anabaptists alike, the matter of infant baptism comes into sharp focus in contexts where the Church’s relation to wider society was also changing. In Augustine’s day, one could increasingly assume that the true Church would encompass the rest of the community as well; during the Reformation era, that assumption was no longer safe as Western Christianity fragmented along confessional and national lines. In fact, if we press our evidence, the same formula can be discerned all the way back to Christianity’s origins. The inward-looking sectarians of Qumran, hostile to most other Jews (to say nothing of the Gentile world), erected multiple stages of initiation: only the truly earnest would remain. Meanwhile, in the moments when the good news about Jesus most unexpectedly bursts out into the wider world—the unchatechized eunuch, Cornelius, and the Philippian jailor were all Gentiles—we find entire families and households suddenly joining the Christian community without formal preparation or catechesis.

Today, one wonders how such a dynamic could manifest in future baptismal practices, if the process of de-Christianization continues along its current trajectory. Will certain confessions maintain the tradition of baptizing the very young, as many Christians have done in the Middle East for centuries amidst Islam? Presumably, yes. But it may also be that an increasingly hostile environment will erode some of the implicit reasoning of pedobaptism, such that any fresh currents of Christianity prove more rigorist and more credobaptist.

This article is Part III of III. Part I can be found here, and Part II here.

Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. Everett Ferguson, “The Beginning of Infant Baptism,” in Early Christians Speak, 3rd ed., Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries (ACU Press, 1999), 60.

  2. Eumenides 646-7.


Related Articles

Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This