No one could have been considered a disciple of Jesus who had not received baptism, and it thus appears that there were many aged persons, living about A.D.150, to whom, when children, the ordinance had been administered. We may infer, also, that Polycarp, when an infant, had been in this way admitted within the pale of visible Christianity. Infant baptism must, therefore, have been an institution of the age of the apostles. This conclusion is corroborated by the fact that Justin Martyr speaks of baptism as supplying the place of circumcision. "We," says he, "who through Christ have access to God, have not received that circumcision which is in the flesh, but that spiritual circumcision which Enoch, and others like him, observed. And this, because we have been sinners, we do, through the mercy of God, receive by baptism." [473:1] Justin would scarcely have represented the initiatory ordinance of the Christian Church as supplying so efficiently the place of the Jewish rite, had it not been of equally extensive application. The testimony of Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, throws additional light upon this argument. "Christ," says he, "came to save all persons by Himself; all, I say, who by Him are regenerated unto God -- infants, and little ones, and children, and youths, and aged persons: therefore He went through the several ages, being made an infant for infants, that He might sanctify infants; [473:2] and, for little ones, He was made a little one, to sanctify them of that age also." [473:3] Irenaeus elsewhere speaks of baptism as our regeneration or new birth unto God, [473:4] so that his meaning in this passage cannot well be disputed. He was born on the confines of the apostolic age, and when he mentions the regeneration unto God of "infants, and little ones, and children," he alludes to their admission by baptism to the seal of salvation.
The celebrated Origen was born about A.D.185, and we have as strong circumstantial evidence as we could well desire that he was baptized in infancy. [474:1] Both his parents were Christians, and as soon as he was capable of receiving instruction, he began to enjoy the advantages of a pious education. He affirms, not only that the practice of infant baptism prevailed in his own age, but that it had been handed down as an ecclesiastical ordinance from the first century. "None," says he, "is free from pollution, though his life upon the earth be but the length of one day, and for this reason even infants are baptized, because by the sacrament of baptism the pollution of our birth is put away." [474:2] "The Church has received the custom of baptizing little children from the apostles." [474:3]
The only writer of the first three centuries who questions the propriety of infant baptism is Tertullian. The passage in which he expounds his views on this subject is a most transparent specimen of special pleading, and the extravagant recommendations it contains sufficiently attest that he had taken up a false position. "Considering," says he, "every one's condition and disposition, and also his age, the delay of baptism is more advantageous, but especially in the case of little children. For what necessity is there that the sponsors be brought into danger? Because they may fail to fulfil their promises by death, or may be deceived by the child's proving of a wicked disposition. Our Lord says indeed -- 'Do not forbid them to come unto me.' Let them come, therefore, whilst they are growing up, let them come whilst they are learning, whilst they are being taught where it is they are coming, let them be made Christians when they are capable of knowing Christ. Why should their innocent age make haste to the remission of sins? Men proceed more cautiously in worldly things; and he that is not trusted with earthly goods, why should he be trusted with divine? Let them know how to ask salvation, that you may appear to give it to one that asketh. For no less reason unmarried persons ought to be delayed, because they are exposed to temptations, as well virgins that are come to maturity, as those that are in widowhood and have little occupation, until they either marry or be confirmed in continence. They who know the weight of baptism will rather dread its attainment than its postponement." [475:1]
In the apostolic age all adults, when admitted to baptism, answered for themselves. Had additional sponsors been required for the three thousand converts who joined the Church on the day of Pentecost, [475:2] they could not have been procured. The Ethiopian eunuch and the Philippian jailor [475:3] were their own sponsors. Until long after the time when Tertullian wrote, there were, in the case of adults, no other sponsors than the parties themselves. But when an infant was dedicated to God in baptism, the parents were required to make a profession of the faith, and to undertake to train up their little one in the way of righteousness. [476:1] It is to this arrangement that Tertullian refers when he says -- "What necessity is there that the sponsors be brought into danger? Because even they may fail to fulfil their promises by death, or may be deceived by the child's proving of a wicked disposition."
It is plain, from his own statements, that infant baptism was practised in the days of this father; and it is also obvious that it was then said to rest on the authority of the New Testament. Its advocates, he alleges, quoted in its defence the words of our Saviour -- "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not." [476:2] And how does Tertullian meet this argument? Does he venture to say that it is contradicted by any other Scripture testimony? Does he pretend to assert that the appearance of parents, as sponsors for their children, is an ecclesiastical innovation? Had this acute and learned controversialist been prepared to encounter infant baptism on such grounds, he would not have neglected his opportunity. But, instead of pursuing such a line of reasoning, he merely exhibits his weakness by resorting to a piece of miserable sophistry. When our Lord said -- "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not," He illustrated His meaning as He "took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them;" [476:3] so that the gloss of Tertullian -- "Let them come whilst they are growing up, let them come whilst they are learning" -- is a palpable misinterpretation. Nor is this all. The Carthaginian father must have known that there were frequent instances in the days of the apostles of the baptism of whole households; and yet he maintains that the unmarried, especially young widows, cannot with safety be admitted to the ordinance. Had he been with Paul and Silas at Philippi he would thus scarcely have consented to the baptism of Lydia; and he would certainly have protested against the administration of the rite to all the members of her family. [477:1]
Though Tertullian may not have formally separated from the Church when he wrote the tract in which this passage occurs, it is evident that he had already adopted the principles of the Montanists. These errorists held that any one who had fallen into heinous sin after baptism could never again be admitted to ecclesiastical fellowship; and this little book itself supplies proof that its author now supported the same doctrine. He here declares that the man "who renews his sins after baptism" is "destined to fire;" and he intimates that martyrdom, or "the baptism of blood," can alone "restore" such an offender. [477:2] It was obviously the policy of the Montanists to discourage infant baptism, and to retain the mass of their adherents, as long as possible, in the condition of catechumens. Hence Tertullian here asserts that "they who know the weight of baptism will rather dread its attainment than its postponement." [477:3] But neither the apostles, nor the early Church, had any sympathy with such a sentiment. They represent baptism as a privilege -- as a sign and seal of God's favour -- which all should thankfully embrace. On the very day on which Peter denounced the Jews as having with wicked hands crucified his Master, he assisted in the baptism of three thousand of these transgressors. "Repent," says he, "and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, for the promise is unto you and to your children." [478:1] Tertullian would have given them no such encouragement. But the Montanists believed that their Phrygian Paraclete was commissioned to supersede the apostolic discipline. When the African father attacked infant baptism he obviously acted under this conviction; and whilst seeking to set aside the arrangements of the Church of his own age, he felt no scruple in venturing at the same time to subvert an institute of primitive Christianity.
We have the clearest evidence that, little more than twenty years after the death of Tertullian, the whole Church of Africa recognised the propriety of this practice. About the middle of the third century a bishop of that country, named Fidus, appears to have taken up the idea that, when administering the ordinance, he was bound to adhere to the very letter of the law relative to circumcision, [478:2] and that therefore he was not at liberty to baptize the child before the eighth day after its birth. When the case was submitted to Cyprian and an African Synod, consisting of sixty-six bishops, they unanimously decided that these scruples were groundless; and, in an epistle addressed to the pastor who entertained them, the Assembly thus communicated the result of its deliberations -- "As regards the case of infants who, you say, should not be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that respect should be had to the law of the ancient circumcision, whence you think that one newly born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all in our council thought very differently.... If even to the most grievous offenders, ... when they afterwards believe, remission of sins is granted, and no one is debarred from baptism and grace, how much more ought not an infant to be debarred who, being newly born, has in no way sinned, except that being born after Adam in the flesh, he has by his first birth contracted the contagion of the old death; who is on this very account more easily admitted to receive remission of sins, in that, not his own, but another's sins are remitted to him." [479:1]
Whilst it is thus apparent that the baptism of infants was the established order of the Church, it is equally clear that the particular mode of administration was not considered essential to the validity of the ordinance. It was usually dispensed by immersion or affusion, [479:2] but when the health of the candidate might have been injured by such an ordeal, sprinkling was deemed sufficient. Aspersion was commonly employed in the case of the sick, and was known by the designation of clinic or bed baptism. Cyprian points out to one of his correspondents the absurdity of the idea that the extent to which the water is applied can affect the character of the institution. "In the saving sacrament," says he, "the contagion of sin is not washed away just in the same way as is the filth of the skin and body in the ordinary ablution of the flesh, so that there should be need of saltpetre and other appliances, and a bath and a pool in which the poor body may be washed and cleansed.... It is apparent that the sprinkling of water has like force with the saving washing, and that when this is done in the Church, where the faith both of the giver and receiver is entire, [480:1] all holds good and is consummated and perfected by the power of the Lord, and the truth of faith." [480:2]
Cyprian is here perfectly right in maintaining that the essence of baptism does not consist in the way in which the water is administered; but much of the language he employs in speaking of this ordinance cannot be commended as sober and scriptural. He often confounds it with regeneration, and expresses himself as if the mere rite possessed a mystic virtue. "The birth of Christians," says he, "is in baptism." [480:3] "The Church alone has the life-giving water." [480:4] "The water must first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest, that it may be able, by baptism therein, to wash away the sins of the baptized." [480:5] Tertullian and other writers of the third century make use of phraseology equally unguarded. [480:6] When the true character of the institute was so far misunderstood, it is not extraordinary that it began to be tricked out in the trappings of superstition. The candidate, as early as the third century, was exorcised before baptism, with a view to the expulsion of evil spirits; [480:7] and, in some places, after the application of the water, when the kiss of peace was given to him, a mixture of milk and honey was administered, [480:8] He was then anointed, and marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. [480:9] Finally, the presiding minister, by the laying on of hands, bestowed the benediction. [480:10] Tertullian endeavours to explain some of these ceremonies. "The flesh," says he, "is washed, that the soul may be freed from spots; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is marked (with the sign of the cross), that the soul may be guarded; the flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands, that the soul may be enlightened by the Spirit." [481:1]
It is not improbable that the baptismal service constituted the first germ of a Church liturgy. As the ordinance was so frequently celebrated, it was found convenient to adhere to the same form, not only in the words of administration, [481:2] but also in the accompanying prayers; and thus each pastor soon had his own baptismal office. But when heresies spread, and when, in consequence, measures were taken to preserve the unity of the Catholic faith, a uniform series of questions -- prepared, perhaps, by councils and adopted by the several ministers -- was addressed to all catechumens. Thus, the baptismal services were gradually assimilated; and, as the power of the hierarchy increased, one general office, in each district, superseded all the previously-existing formularies.
Baptism, as dispensed in apostolic simplicity, is a most significant ordinance; but the original rite was soon well-nigh hidden behind the rubbish of human inventions. The milk and honey, the unction, the crossing, the kiss of peace, and the imposition of hands, were all designed to render it more imposing; and, still farther to deepen the impression, it was already administered in the presence of none save those who had themselves been thus initiated. [481:3] But the foolishness of God is wiser than man. Nothing is more to be deprecated than any attempt to improve upon the institutions of Christ. Baptism, as established by the Divine Founder of our religion, is a visible exhibition of the gospel; but, as known in the third century, it had much of the character of one of the heathen mysteries. It was intended to confirm faith: but it was now contributing to foster superstition. How soon had the gold become dim, and the most fine gold been changed!