Does Tertullian Reject Infant Baptism?

Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra, Baptism of St. Francis of Assisi (1665)

I’ve said before that the Church Fathers are unanimous in their belief in regenerative baptism: that is, they believe that Baptism actually saves us (as 1 Peter 3:21 explicitly says), by causing us to be born again by water and the Spirit (John 3:5); that it actually washes away our sins (Acts 22:16), and creates in us a clean heart, enabling us to approach God (Hebrews 10:22)… all of which is prophesied by Ezekiel 36:25-27. It’s because of this belief that the Church permits infant baptism: baptism isn’t some good work that we do for God, showing Him how truly Christian we are; it’s a Sacrament, meaning that it’s something that He does for us, cleansing us from our sins.

So while Scripture is totally silent on the direct question of infant baptism (we’re not told whether or not the households baptized in Acts 16:33, 1 Corinthians 1:16, etc., included infants), the Scriptural teaching on regenerative baptism settles the question. If baptism is something God does for us, and if it incorporates us into the Kingdom, and if Christ says to let the little children come unto Him (Matthew 19:14), then it’s clear that we should permit infants to be baptized, and in fact, should encourage it to remove original sin.

Objecting to this post on the subject, one Protestant reader cites to Tertullian and other early Christians:

The first clear reference to infant baptism appears in Tertullian’s On Baptism 18 (ca. 200) and there Tertullian rejects the practice on the grounds that very young children are not yet “competent to know Christ” and are innocent of culpable sin. The article cites Cyprian and the North African bishops but that was some 50 years after the key North African bishop Tertullian rejected it.

Despite an occasional significant support from the third century (Origen, Cyprian), infant baptism would not become standard practice until the fifth and sixth centuries. Christian inscriptions from the third and fourth centuries indicate baptism of very young children only in circumstances where death was likely or imminent. So significant a set of fourth-century Christian leaders as Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa were not baptized until adulthood despite coming from a family that had been Christian for generations. Eventually high childhood mortality rates, coupled with the view that baptism was objectively efficacious for bringing about salvation, made infant baptism the norm nearly everywhere. In the third to fourth centuries baptism was commonly deferred until after the sins of youth or even until just before death (Constantine is a notable example) in the belief that post-baptismal sins were not covered by baptism. The ascendency of both infant baptism and penitential rites ultimately led to the demise of the delay-baptism movement.

Several things are wrong with this claim. First, Tertullian doesn’t reject the practice of infant baptism. He discourages it, but he doesn’t forbid it (that’s an important distinction, since it shows he viewed as possible). Second, his basis for discouraging it isn’t because the young children don’t know Christ. It’s because he’s concerned that once they’re baptized, they’ll be damned forever if they fall into mortal sin. To understand why he was concerned about this, you need to know something about the controversy giving rise to a heresy called Novatianism.

I. Background: The Novatian Controversy

As the above commenter rightly points out in the second half of his comment, there was an open theological question in the early Church about whether or not post-baptismal mortal sins could be forgiven. This was due in no small part about an interpretative dispute about Hebrews 6:4-6, which says:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

The references to (i) being enlightened, (ii) tasting the heavenly gift, and (iii) becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit are references to Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation respectively. These are the three “Sacraments of initiation,” by which one becomes a fully-incorporated member of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Given this, can Christians who fall into mortal sin ever be saved? Certain Christians said no, based on their reading of Hebrews 6:4-6 and a few other passages. Others said yes, since nothing is impossible to God. This dispute eventually exploded into a heretical movement called the Novatians, who denied penance to mortal sinners, who were opposed (ultimately successfully) by the Catholics. St. Ambrose’s book Concerning Repentance does a good job refuting the Novatian arguments. He points out (Book I, Chapter 8, para. 37) that in trying to affirm the workings of grace in the Sacraments, the Novatians were actually demeaning them, by treating the Sacrament of Penance as powerless. In Book II, Chapter 2, he shows why the Novatian interpretation of Hebrews 6 is wrong.

But while Tertullian was alive, this dispute was still young, and the position that the Novatians would later hold wasn’t obviously heretical. There were still open questions about whether Hebrews 6 permitted reconciliation for a baptized Christian who commit a mortal sin. Moreover, penances during this period were quite severe, sometimes lasting an entire lifetime. Given all this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that even many orthodox Christians put off getting baptized, often until their deathbeds.

II. Tertullian’s View
John Phillip, Baptism in Scotland (1850)

With this necessary background, let’s consider what Tertullian has to say on the subject in the aptly-named On Baptism.  Here’s the section that the commenter above referenced:

And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary— if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? 

The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! […] If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.

Four things to note:

  1. Tertullian treats infant baptism as an existing reality. He’s the one encouraging a change to the status quo, by trying to get people to delay their baby’s (and their own) baptism. And indeed, this comports with the rest of the data. In 180 A.D. (about two decades prior to Concerning Baptism) Irenaeus’ Against Heresies describes how “infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men” are “born again.” So infant baptism has been around a lot longer than Tertullian’s admonitions on the subject.

  2. Tertullian treats infant baptism as acceptable. He simply says that it’s preferable to wait.
  3. Tertullian’s position isn’t credobaptist. It’s true that he argues that we should wait to baptize kids until they’re old enough to know Christ. But his reasoning is that, before then, they’re either (a) too young to sin (since they’re still in “the innocent period of life”), and/or (b) too young to be prudent in obeying their baptismal duties. That’s why he wants kids to wait until they have more of a faith: not because Baptism is a symbol, but because he thinks of it as such a burden that they’ll need faith to survive without ever falling into mortal sin.
  4. Tertullian’s position isn’t limited to kids. As a matter of prudence, Tertullian thought that everyone should delay Baptism. Later on in this same section, he advises that the unmarried also shouldn’t be baptized, because they’re more prone to temptation.

Trying to turn Tertullian into a proto-Protestant on the question of Baptism is particularly ironic, given that the very first words of On Baptism are “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!

That is, the entire work begins from the position that Baptism is regenerative. None of Tertullian’s arguments make sense without that framework. He’s not arguing for a “believer’s baptism” or anything remotely close. Quite the opposite. The Catholic position holds that Baptism washes away sins, which Protestants typically deny. But Tertullian doesn’t just hold to the Catholic position, he goes much further (too far, even), arguing that only Baptism washes away mortal sins. He literally couldn’t be further from the standard Protestant view on this doctrine.

So to recap: Tertullian doesn’t reject baptismal regeneration or infant baptism. He enthusiastically endorses baptismal regeneration, and while he discourages infant baptism, he recognizes its validity, and his arguments against it are (from either a Catholic or Protestant perspective) wrong

Conclusion
Step back, and a jarring picture emerges. Here’s a dispute in the early Church over whether to baptize right away, or whether to wait. But what’s noteworthy is that nobody holds to the Protestant view. Nobody says that baptism is just an expression or symbol of our faith. Nobody is denying that Baptism is regenerative: in fact, the whole dispute only makes sense if you realize that both sides firmly believe in baptismal regeneration. Furthermore, neither side is denying that infant baptism is permissible: that whole sub-argument turns on whether or not it’s a good idea. 
All of this shows how radically Protestantism broke with early Christianity: there’s no way to read Protestantism back into the story of the Church without seriously perverting the historical data. 
Finally, an ironic point. On the actual dispute between the Catholics and Novatians, Protestants agree with us (or at least, agree with us more than they do the Novatians). Typically, Protestantism doesn’t have any concept of venial v. mortal sins, or any way to distinguish between the sort of sins that believers commit every day from the sort of sins that cut us off from the Body of Christ. But they do believe that, even if you “fall away” at some point in your life, it’s still possible for you to be ultimately saved. So again, citing to someone closer to the Novatian camp to support the Protestant position is an ironic sort of historical eisegesis. 

5 Comments

  1. Nicely done on Tertullian.

    Irenaeus supports it (” For He came to save all through means of Himself— all, I say, who through Him are born again to Godinfants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.”) and Cyprian as the objector you quote says, and even Clement of Alexandria “And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.”.

    I think it’s a stretch for him to push the controversy into the six century. In 417, Pope Innocent I in a doctrinal letter to the Fathers of the Synod of Milevis: “To preach that infants can be given the rewards of eternal life without the grace of baptism is completely idiotic. For unless thou eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, they will not have life in them.”

    Which affirms both paedobaptism and paedocommunion.

  2. In addition to the quote that you cite above from the Gospel of Matthew “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”, we should also consider the words of the Lord to St. Peter in the Gospel of John:

    “When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs.[16] He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. [17] He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep”.

    Note that the Lord admonishes Peter to “feed my lambs” twice, and “feed my sheep” only once. Is this not an emphasis in favor of greatly caring for “his” lambs/children? And what about the Lords teaching on “scandalizing one of these little ones”? Does this not also show his particular love and care for children “whose angels are always before the face of His Father in Heaven”?

    Adding these various teachings on the subject of children together, I can’t see how any person, or church, could reasonably reject infant baptism? Jesus clearly notes that the “lambs” are already ‘his own’. Or, maybe these most beautiful parables, sayings and similitudes given to us by the very mouth of Christ don’t have anything pertinent to teach?

  3. I forgot to add another important example found in the second joyful mystery of the Holy Rosary. That is, that the power of Christ is shown to be significant and effective even before birth. This is witnessed in the account of the unborn John the Baptist who was sanctified in the womb of his mother Elizabeth at the time of Mary’s visitation to her. If such power and holiness can be provided by Christ to a baby not even born, how can anyone argue that infants might not benefit in the same, or even greater way, by a sacramental grace given to them during infant Baptism?

  4. John in the womb is such a powerful example because it so strongly implies an infant’s noetic belief in Christ, which is the deathblow of believer’s baptism objections to paedobaptism.

  5. I enjoyed the article, but I do see some eisegesis going on. For example, Tertullian says “little children.” That does not necessarily include infants, but very young children that cannot understand the faith simply due to age (i.e. they will say whatever their parents tell them.)

    This makes me think of something Hippolytus says: “And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them.” Many jump on this to mean that Hippolytus advocated baptizing children that could not talk, which implicitly means, that they are essentially infants. Sure, this is a possible explanation, but not the only possible one. Being that baptism came with prayer, fasting, and such (and interestingly enough there were no instructions for how to baptize infants, while they were plenty of instructions for baptizing believers), the child is expected to do certain public things if he/she desires to be baptized. Among these things is a public profession of faith, I presume. Now, not all children (especially very little ones) are comfortable speaking in front of large crowds. So, Hippolytus may be saying, let the parents speak for the child in this instance and testify to the fact that the child is going through the rites that precede baptism.

    Lastly, anyone who quote Irenaeus on the subject has a real uphill battle, as nothing He says directly relates to the subject. Certainly one can make the case for baptismal regeneration, but not necessarily infant baptism.

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