I was reading some of the early Christian writings recently and was surprised to come across references to infant baptism in the Church from such patristic heavyweights as Iraneus (130-202), Origen (185-254), Tertullian (155-230) and Hippolytus (d. 235). Combine this with the fact that the church practiced the baptism of believer's children (as well as adult baptism of converts) until the 16th century before there was any serious theological challenge and you have to wonder, was it acceptable to God then, and is it now? There is also no record in ancient church writings of when the practice of paedobaptism [baby baptism] started (if indeed it did start outside the apostolic age) or of any opposition or comment upon the beginning of the practice from opponents within the early church. Determined to explore the issue further, I read a paper which notes parallels between circumcision under the Old Covenant with baptism under the New Covenant. I started to read this with my credobaptist lenses firmly in the place, but by the end, found myself not wholly uncomfortable with some of the conclusions. The paper, which I am sending to you to take a look at, expounds an unusual "not either/or but both/and" view of infant and believer's baptism within the church, contrasting the "missionary" adult baptisms of Acts with what may have been a "Covenant Sign" baptism of believers' infants in the "household baptisms" of Acts and in the centuries that followed. (The individual "belief" of the members of Lydia's household or that of the Philippian jailer is neither stated nor implied.) I'm not sold on the paedobaptist position, just really surprised that it had taken hold so early without any detectable schism in the early church over its adoption. The procedures for baptising families (including infants) are clearly laid out in the The Apostolic Tradition, which is attributed to Hippolytus and dates from 215. This document was designed, apparently, to preserve older second-century practices which were in danger of falling to disuse or innovation. So maybe the practice is even older than 200 AD? -- George Phillips
Yes, I am aware that around the year 200 some of the church fathers spoke about infant baptism, not necessarily condemning it. I also realize that 1800 years is a long time. But then the ring of antiquity is not necessarily the same as the ring of truth. What the church taught in 150 is even closer to apostolic times, e.g. patristic comments that a baby who dies passes through the world as one without sins. They saw (apparently) no need to immerse the little ones. But even the year 150 is three, four, or five (?) generations after the apostles.
I see a firm dividing line between apostolic times and subapostolic times, between NT teaching and what was permitted a century and a half later. In the 2nd century it was also taught that communion not presided over by an elder was invalid, and that observing the correct date of Easter had implications for one's salvation. The big question: What does the Bible teach? (Or, What would the apostles have said?)
I know it is a bit of an oversimplification, but I teach that infant baptism appears around 200... but is not particularly common, and certainly not mainstream, until about 400, with Augustine. For these reasons, as well as for the NT teaching that faith is an integral part of baptism, I reject paedobaptism.
Now, it might be asked, What if a paedobaptist exhibited the spirit of Christ? What if he seemed in all other respects to be a kosher Christian? I leave that to the Lord to judge. All I can go on is what is written. Not what is written in Irenaeus, but in the NT. Once we make exceptions to what the Spirit has revealed to us in the word, there is no end to the compromises that will be made, whether in the name of fairness, moderation, or downright sentimentality. I am sure you will agree.
As for circumcision, the analogy is overdone. Yet certainly once one admits paedobaptism, then the parallels between the two rites are very close indeed. In neither case does the one undergoing it know what is happening, nor assent to the teaching of the faith. We can think of other connections between OT rituals or events and their NT counterparts. How about the OT priesthood and the NT priesthood of Jesus? Or the priesthood of all believers? Where is the clergy in all of this? Nowhere, biblically speaking. Yet Anglo-Catholics might well parallel the Levitical priesthood to their own priestly systems. There would be points of connection, real similarities... and yet nothing justified by the entirety of scripture, for once you ignore the apostolic teaching, you are not being faithful to the Bible as a whole.
I hope these thoughts help. I encourage you to keep studying church history. You will see good and bad in each decade. This week I reread the Epistle of Barnabas. A lot of good stuff--but also some things that are clearly unbiblical. That's why we must apply good theological filters to anything we read outside the Bible. Again, I am sure you would agree with this statement. So keep reading, but keep in mind how far the church drifted (how much it "developed") between the first century and the late second century. Undoubtedly there were still many true Christians up until the 4th century, but after this point, as you know, few churchgoers exhibited the spirit of Christ; the historical record is sadly plain.