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Book Review

Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries

by Joachim Jeremias

From the back cover: Joachim Jeremias here makes his greatest contribution in a study of the early tradition of infant baptism. He offers exegesis of pertinent New Testament passages, and readers will be impressed with the extra-Biblical evidence he produces to support that there was virtually universal observance of the rite in the post-Apostolic generations. He states his purpose thus: to lay before the reader the historical material relating to the history of infant baptism in the first four centuries in as concrete and sober a manner as possible.

There is evidence, for the 1500 years from the Resurrection to the Protestant Reformation, the church practiced infant baptism.

It’s not uncommon for modern Christians to believe that infant baptism is an artifact of the Roman Catholic Church; done away with when the Anabaptists of the 1600’s discovered the “real meaning” of the New Testament and did away with all the corruptions of the Romanists. The first four hundred years, prior to the usurpation of the Roman church, are considered by some, a kind of golden age in the church that even the Reformation failed to restore.

To the Reformers infant baptism was acceptable and good. To the Anabaptists, infant baptism was a man-made tradition and incompatible with Bible believing Christians. They will tell you that in the first four centuries of the church there was no such thing as infant baptism. Those first four centuries are the focus of Joachim’s book. While there is no direct example of infants being baptized in the New Testament there is a great deal of evidence that it was happening.

Joachim Jeremias’ book is a scholarly work originally published in 1960. It is not intended to be a cleverly worded narrative of ancient history and theology. It is a dry read, not unlike a technical document in an obscure class on an esoteric topic. Not only is it a translation from German to English it still includes Greek and Latin phrases that in many cases remain untranslated. The author expects you to discern the translation from the text and, thankfully, Joachim is thorough in his descriptions making this a relatively straightforward endeavor.

What Joachim does exceptionally well is guide the reader back in time to put the argument in historical, societal and theological context. To that end, the evidences are presented in four chapters in chronological order. What I have here should be considered highlights of a larger case and not complete arguments in themselves.

Joachim starts with the culture of the early believers. In the ancient east they did not think in individualistic terms like we do in the modern west. The beginning of Christianity took place in a culture where one person could bring shame, or honor, to the entire family. We see this played out in Acts 16 where Lydia (presumably the head of the household) believed and the entire household was baptized. Again the Philippian Jailer believed and was baptized, along with his entire family.

This gives added meaning to a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:14 where Paul says the children are made holy even by one believing parent. Children of believing parents were considered part of the church and therefore eligible for baptism. In Acts 21:21, we learn Paul was instructing Jewish believers not to circumcise their children, but Paul also considered baptism the Christian circumcision (Col 2:11). Since children were circumcised under the Old Covenant, it is probable that Jewish believers would have interpreted baptism as including children in the New Covenant. This is also supported by Mark 10:13-16 when Jesus declared the children should not be forbidden to come to him.

Moving forward in history to Tertullian, a theologian in the late 100’s and early 200’s, we have the first known dispute against infant baptism. In between the New Testament and Tertullian, Joachim offers several tombstone inscriptions and writings about children who died in infancy, or as toddlers, and are described as believers. Given the thousands of years of Jews circumcising infants, the lack of argument against baptizing children and the description of infants as believers, Tertullian’s argument isn’t against a new practice, but rather an established practice.

In the fourth century, Augustine is known to have written that no heretic renounced the baptism of infants showing that infant baptism was not started by heretics, but rather corrupted by them. As Joachim writes, “In 388 Chrysostom in Constantinople in the Homily to Neophytes lauds the batismatis largitates and draws therefrom the conclusion ‘Therefore we baptize little children also, although they have no sin’” (italics are the author’s).

Joachim finishes with a note from Augustine, who may have been the last theologian before the usurpation of Rome. Augustine, writing against the heretical Pelagians, wrote that, “[They] would have reason to fear that men would spit in their faces and women would throw their sandals at their heads if they dared to say of infantes, ‘Let them not be baptized’.” A drastic reaction perhaps, but still showing that infant baptism was an established practiced in the early church.

If you’re interested in the history of baptism, Joachim’s work is a must read as it is an historical investigation and not necessarily a theological one. As I said, I’m summing up in a page what Joachim expounded on in a hundred pages replete with footnotes. Whether you agree with infant baptism or not, Joachim’s work is not a show piece for the faithful, but rather an in depth and well documented study that infant baptism was a regular practice in the church, starting with the Apostles.