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The Institution of Baptism.
OT Evidence.
NT Evidence.
Proper Subjects.
Way Forward_


We are grateful to the UFC for permission to publish the following paper in full.  We believe readers will find it an immensely valuable theological and practical document.  It was prepared for their General Assembly in 2001.

UFCOS website is www.ufcos.org.uk 


Extra-biblical evidence 

It is necessary before considering this evidence to say something about the nature of extra-biblical evidence. Extra-biblical evidence, whether it be for or against the baptism of children, does not and should not carry the weight of biblical evidence. It is a timely reminder that the United Free Church "acknowledges as her supreme standard the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments". All else is subordinate to that supreme standard. We concur with a statement which appears in the Introductory Note of the Church of Scotland's The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism: "The Doctrine of Baptism must be founded on the Teaching of Holy Scripture". The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, a study document issued by the Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland (Convener, Prof T F Torrance), The Saint Andrew Press 1958, p 5 The supremacy of Scripture does not mean, however, that extra-biblical evidence is of no value. In our interpretation of Scripture it may have a supportive, corroborative or guiding role to play. There are lessons to be learned from the geography, religion and culture of the New Testament era, just as there are lessons to be learned from the history and developing theology of the church. So, for example, our understanding of the Trinity is assisted by the insights of those who had to combat the heresy of Arianism, and our understanding of justification by faith is assisted by the insights of the Reformers. It is on this basis that consideration is given to proselyte baptisms and to some writings of the Early Church Fathers. Their relevance is not assumed in advance. The evidence has to be assessed. But they may serve a purpose. In any case, in view of the fact that both are frequently quoted either in support of or in opposition to infant baptism, some attention to them will be helpful.1. Proselyte baptisms Reference has already been made to proselyte baptisms under the heading Jewish antecedents . It is not without significance that when converts to the Jewish faith were baptised their children were included in the act of baptism. Whether proselyte baptism came before Christian baptism or Christian baptism came before proselyte baptism makes little difference. The practice of including children shows how deeply embedded into the Jewish psyche was the importance of children in God's covenant purposes. The inclusion of children in proselyte baptisms adds weight to the argument that Jewish converts to Christ would take it for granted that their children were to be included in the act of baptism. The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, a study document issued by the Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland (Convener, Prof T F Torrance), The Saint Andrew Press 1958, pp 45f. 1. Evidence from the post-apostolic period The evidence with respect to infant baptist in the post-apostolic period, from the New Testament era up to the time of Tertullian (c150/160-215 AD), is meagre and inconclusive. It can be and has been used by both sides in the debate. Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, J Jeremias, SCM 1960, and the response by Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptise Infants? These two developed the debate and stimulated much further argument and counter-argument. The period dealt with here takes us up to Origen.1. The Didache The Didache A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 126 claims to present the teaching of the Twelve Apostles on a number of issues, including Baptism. It informs us that instruction preceded baptism and that baptism was in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is flexible with respect to the mode of baptism, leading the Brethren scholar, FF Bruce, to observe, ""There is a spirit of eminent reasonableness here. The meaning of baptism is much more important than the form. Running water is best. (Why? Because Jesus was baptised in Jordan?) But 'static water' will do instead; and if there is not enough of either,affusion is as valid as dipping. "The Spreading Flame, Paternoster 1961,p193. On the question of child baptism, however, the Didache is silent, neither affirming nor denying it. How we interpret the silence will be determined by our interpretation of the biblical data and our theological presuppositions. Over and above the Didache's silence we are faced with some uncertainty over dating. Discovered in 1875 initial enthusiasm for an early dating has given way to considerable scepticism. Datesf rom the first to the fourth century have been suggested. H Bettenson says that it was "admittedly 'pseudepigraphical 'in claiming to be the 'teaching of the Apostles'" and dates it late second century. The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 6. In any case evidence foror against child baptism is non-existent. 1. Pliny (c112) Sent by the Emperor Trajan to reorganise the affairs of the province of Bithynia, Pliny wrote to the Emperor with information on the activities of Christians and asked for guidance as to how he should treat them. His letter, datedc112, comments on the number of people affected by the Christian error, "many of all ages" A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 14. including the young (teneri). It is difficult to see any significance for infant baptism, either for or against, in Pliny's letter. 1. Justin Martyr (early Christian Apologist who taught in Rome; c100-165) In his First Apology (c150) Justin mentions "many men and women of the age of sixty and seventy years who have been disciples (or 'who were made disciples') of Christ from childhood" .Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 72. Jeremias and Buchanan Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries , SCM 1960, p 72; C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism Grove Books1973, p23. point out that the word translated "have been disciples"is in the passive and is used elsewhere by Justin to refer to baptism. Dialogue with Trypho, 39.2. WF Flemington observes that: (a) the verb mathçteuô used by Justin in the passive is the same verb that is used in the active in Matthew 28.19, "make disciples of all nations, baptising them…"; (b) Justin's use of the aorist tense suggests a particular moment when these men and women entered into discipleship as infants. The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism ,SPCK 1948, p132.Aland argues that Justin's description of baptism excludes the possibility that he knew about infant baptism, but this again is an argument from silence. 1. Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna (Asia Minor] c70-155/168) According to Irenaeus, Polycarp had been "instructed by the Apostles and acquainted with many who had seen the Lord (and) was also appointed for Asia by the Apostles as bishop in the churchin Smyrna". Against Heresies III, ii-iii, see H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers , OUP1969, p 91. Certainly Polycarp's link with the apostolic era gives added weight to his words. He is best knownfor his testimony to Christ immediately prior to his martyrdom, "Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me. "A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 21. The relevant question for our discussion is this. what did Polycarp mean by, "Eighty-six years I have served him…"?There are several possibilities.(1) Polycarp had served Christ as a believer and as a baptised person for eighty-six years,i.e. his baptism followed immediately after his conversion. In which case, allowing for his conversion and baptism at (say) fourteen years of age, he would have been approximately one hundred years old at the time of his martyrdom. Such a reading of the evidence is very difficult. Not only were centenarians rare in those days we know that Polycarp travelled from Smyrna to Rome shortly before his martyrdom, when Anicetus was Bishop of Rome (c155-c166).Against Heresies III, ii-iii, see H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 91. Allowing for the different datings of his martyrdom between 155 and 168Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries , SCM 1960, pp60-64; also J Stevenson, A New Eusebius , SPCK 1975, p 60. The date most commonly accepted for Polycarp's martyrdom is AD167-8. A later date of 177 has received little support. Polycarp must, according to this understanding of Polycarp's 'eighty-six years', have been somewhere between ninety and one hundred years when he made that journey - not wholly impossible, but very unlikely. (2) He had served Christ as a believer for eighty-six years, becoming a believer as a child and being baptised at a later age, say fourteen. In which case he was eighty-six years plus at the time of his death. This may encounter a similar difficulty as under (1). The older he was when he became a believer the greater the difficulty.(3) He had served Christ from the moment of his baptism as a child for eighty-six years, i.e. he dates his service to Christ from the moment of his baptism as a child in a Christian household. In which case he was eighty-six years old at the time of his martyrdom. Should this reading of the evidence be correct Polycarp would have been baptised as a child between 69 and 82.The discussion that centres on Polycarp is fascinating but also inconclusive, though the last interpretation is the one with least problems.1. Testimony of the martyrs (martyred probably under Marcus Aurelius, 161-80) Various records relate the testimonyof Christians on trial who testified to being Christians from an early age.In the Acts of the Martyrs Papylus stated,"I have served God from my youth up, and I have never sacrificed to idols, but am a Christian. "Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries , SCM 1960, p 64. In the Acts of Justin and his Companions we have similar testimony. A New Eusebius, SPCK 1975, pp 28ff. In this latterrecord the Prefect is trying to establish whether those on trial became Christians through Justin (Martyr). In response to the prefect's, "Did Justin make you a Christian," Hierax stated, "I was, and ever shall be a Christian." in response to the prefect's, "Who taught you?" Paeon answered, "I received from my parents this good confession." Before being asked, Euelpistus volunteered the information" I listened gladly to the words of Justin, but I too received Christianity from parents." It is possible that what they received from their parents included their baptism, but that is not clear. The men being questioned are essentially making the point that Justin was not responsible for their becoming Christians. 1. Irenaeus (c130/140- c200; Bishop of Lyons, writing c190) Irenaeusis important as a third generation Christian. As a boy he had listened to Polycarp, who in turn had listened to John. Bettenson describes him as "the first biblical theologian".The Early Christian Fathers , OUP 1969, p 13. In his Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote, "For he (Jesus) has come to save all of them by himself: all those, I say, who through him are reborn into God, infants, young children, boys, the mature and older people." The suggestion is that "Jesus sanctifies and saves every age, babies and little children as well as boys, youths and older men, in short, 'all who through him are reborn into God.' "Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 72f. Whether Irenaeus' words may or may not be used in support of child baptism they may certainly be used in support of child salvation and as such they are a reminder that human beings are not at liberty to place limits on God's saving grace. 1. Polycrates (Bishop of Ephesus, writing c190) In a letter to the Bishop of Rome in connection with the date of Easter, Polycrates supplies the information that he was "sixty-five years in the Lord ." Jeremias assumes that this means he was baptised as a child sixty-five years previously, cAD 125.InfantBaptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 63. Aland points out that there is no reference to baptism and argues that Polycrates "intends to indicate nothing more than his age (what a Christian possesses, he has en kuriô)."Did the Early Church Baptise Infants , SCM 1961, pp 72f. While it is true that there is no explicit statement here either for or against child baptism it hardly does justice to Polycrates' "in the Lord" to reduce it to a statement about his age. That is even more the case when Aland argues that Polycarp's eighty-six years are also to be understood as a statement of his age. "Served Christ" is not so easily emptied of its content. 1. Hippolytus (c160-235;presbyter in the Church at Rome) Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition provides us with a picture of Roman church order and worship at the end ofthe second century. Our knowledge of this particular work comes from a varietyof books which use it as a source. Its rule for infant baptism is preservedin the Coptic Egyptian Church Order , the Arabic Egyptian Church Order, the Ethiopic Egyptian Church Order, and the Syriac (Testamentum Domini nostri Jesu Christi). Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 13f. Although the Apostolic Tradition is dated c215 Hippolytus' purpose was to record the tradition of the Church as he knew it. The passage dealing with baptism tells us: "First you should baptise the little ones. All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to their family." Apostolic Tradition (Coptic text), According to Hippolytus adults were to be baptised after the little ones. He also prescribes a probationary period of three years before baptism, a period omitted in the case of children. Aland seeks to counter this with an affirmation that "it is at least possible that the section relating to the baptism of children is an interpolation from a later age" (his italics).Did the Early Church Baptise Infants , SCM 1961, p 49f. Of course, many things are possible, but this does seem to be a case of special pleading on the part of Aland. What we have here is a clear statement re the baptism of children, i.e. "little ones… those who cannot speak". 1. Tertullian (c160/70-c215/20) It is indisputable that in his De Baptismo (c200 AD) Tertullian argued for a "postponement" of baptism, "particularly…in the case of children". The word "particularly" should be noted. What is often not mentioned is that Tertullian advocated a general postponement of baptism: "Consequently in view of the circumstances and will,even the age of each person, a postponement of baptism is most advantageous…."After giving his reasons as to why baptism should be postponed for children he states, "For no less reason the baptism of the unmarried should also be postponed", and for Tertullian the "unmarried" included "the widowed". A New Eusebius , SPCK 19675, p185. There are a number of factors that should be born in mind regarding Tertullian:He was the son of a pagan centurion, converted to Christianity in 193 by witnessing the courage of Christians facing torture and death for the Faith". The Early Christian Fathers , OUP 1969, p 14. He lived and wrote against a background of vicious persecution. Soon after his conversion he wrote his Apology of the Christian faith arguing that the persecution of Christians was illegal and immoral. By nature Tertullian was uncompromising. The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 14. That is clear from his wholly unyielding opposition to anything which might contaminate the faith. We see it, for example, in his opposition to philosophy: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What harmony can there be between the Academy and the Church?" A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675, p178. Tony Lane comments, "Tertullian wrote always as an advocate - defending his own position and attacking all rivals. This he did with the full range of rhetorical skills at his disposal. He has been described as 'an apologist who never apologised'! His aim was the total annihilation of his opponents. They had to be shown to be totally wrong - and morally suspect to boot. Tertullian was not being vindictive or dishonest. He was completely convinced about the rightness of his cause and sincerely sought to argue it as best he could. "The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought, Lion 1984, p 18. He was not only uncompromising to opponents and perverters of the Christian faith, however, he was uncompromising to professing Christians who failed to maintain the high ethical demands of the Christian faith and to Christians who apostatised. It tells us something about Tertullianthat around 203 he left the catholic church to join the Montanists. HD McDonald says of the Montanists that "the movement bears resemblance to the many illuminist and millenarian sects that flourished at the time of the Reformation and subsequently". The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (EdJD Douglas), Paternoster 1974 p 674. The sect was known for its enthusiasm but also for its asceticism. FJA Hort listed as one of the characteristics of the Montanist movement, "an inculcation of a specially stern and exacting standard of Christian morality and discipline". The Spreading Flame , Paternoster 1958, p 219. According to W Walker it was Tertullian's "native Puritanism" that "brought him into sympathy with Montanism". A History of the Christian Church, T & T Clark 1959, p 64. JWC Wand describes him as "this first great Puritan of the West" ( A History of the early Church, Methuen 1963, p 80). The Montanist movement expected and lived for the end of the age and inevitably invited persecution. It was intolerant of those who apostatised in the face of persecution. There is a reference in Augustine to Tertullianists who rejoined the catholic Church in Carthage during his lifetime. Some have concluded from this reference that Tertullian left the Montanists to form his own movement, but it maybe that "Tertullianist" was simply another name for Montanist. Tertullian's rigorous and uncompromising approach with respect to baptism is seen in a scathing reference he makes to Hermas'The Shepherd, a work dated somewhere betweenc90-140/150. With Hebrews 6.4-8 in mind, Hermas had written, "I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no second repentance beyond the one given when we went down into the water and received remission of our former sins." In his response the Shepherd tells Hermas, "You have heard correctly… For he who has received remission of sin ought never to sin again, but to live in purity." The Shepherd seems then in his subsequent guidance to allow for one further repentance after his baptism: "after that great and holy calling, if a man be tempted by the devil and sin, he has one repentance, but if he sin and repent repeatedly it is unprofitable for such a man, for scarcely shall he live." A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675,pp52f. It is helpful to know that Hermas had lost his property and seen his sons apostatise during persecution. Because Hermas permitted one post-baptismal sin Tertullian describes him as "the apocryphal shepherd of the adulterers"! Tertullian was driven in part to maintain the purity of the Church. It was this concern that had led to long preparatory and probationary periods between conversion and baptism in the case of adults. According to Tertullian the Ethiopian in Acts 7 was a special case, as was Saul of Tarsus. It was the same concern that urged a postponement or delay in baptism for adults as well as children: "Those who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment than its delay; unimpaired faith is certain of salvation. "The Early Christian Fathers , OUP 1969, p 146.One thing is clear. The baptism of children was the norm in Tertullian's day and, presumably, at the time of his conversion (AD 193). It is the move against the baptism of children that seems to be the innovation rather than the practice of it. Given the circumstances and Tertullian's opposition to all hasty baptisms and his advocacy of a delay for several categories of people it is inevitable that this would affect the baptism of children. It could hardly have been otherwise. Thereis one other interesting factor in Tertullian's approach which is worth noting. A powerful argument among the early Christian writers of that period in the presentation of their case was an appeal to the apostolic tradition. It was the authority in Tertullian's day. If Tertullian had known that infant baptism was a recent innovation and if he was arguing against it as such, the most powerful weapon in this lawyer's weaponry would have been the apostolic tradition. The fact that he didn't use it may be significant. It is at least possible that he didn't use it because the apostolic tradition supported the baptism of children. In the light of all this it is not unreasonable to conclude with Colin Buchanan, "that Tertullian is on balance more of a witness for the probability of infant baptism being a received tradition in his times, than the opposite."1. Clement of Alexandria(c155-220; Head of the Alexandrian Catechetical School from 190) In his Paedagogus, and in typical allegorical style, Clement speaks of "children who are drawn from the water" by the fisher. But, as Jeremias himself comments, "We shall do well to disregard Clement… it is indeed possible that he is thinking of child baptism, but he might be thinking of children in the faith (cf. 1 Pet 2.1f) whom the missionary brings to baptism." Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 64f. 1. Origen (c185-c254;Head of the Alexandrian Catechetical School from c203) Three times Origen refers explicitly to the baptism of children as a custom of the church: (1) "therefore children also are baptised"; (2) "(baptism is given) according to the custom of the Church, to infants also"; (3) "the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising infants too". Moreover in each of the three instances, and quoting from Job 14.4, he affirms, "No one is pure from stain, yea though he be but one day old, "Homilies on Luke XIV; Homilies on Leviticus VIII 3;Commentaryon Romans V 9. (italics added). Not only was Origen's father a Christian, martyred in 202, Eusebius tells us that Origen's family had been Christian for several generations. Presumably it is, in part, Origen's personal knowledge of his own family's experience that leads him to assert that infant baptism was the custom of the Church. As Jeremias observes, "He could hardly have expressed himself thus if he had not himself been baptised as a paidion/parvulus … he could hardly have spoken of a 'tradition handed down from the apostles' had he not known that at least his father and probably his grandfather has been baptised as paidia." Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 66. In which case Origen's personal knowledge can be traced back to the first half of the second century. In the light of Origen's statements it can hardly be claimed that baptism was a comparatively new development in the early part of the third century. It seems more in keeping with the evidence that he was defending a practice well established rather than defending a practice that was new. Tombstone inscriptions of little children (third century) Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 41, 76-78,85. Jeremias lists a number of inscriptions from which baptism is inferred. (a) One year old Eutychianus is "a slave of God". (b) Kyriakos, a 'holy infant', is "a slave of Christ'.(c) An 'innocent infant' Dionysios 'lies here with the holy ones'. (d) Two-year old PomponiaFortunata 'died in peace' and her inscription bears the symbolof the fish.(e) Three year old Innocens is designated spirito sancto. (f) The inscription of eleven months Theodora has the symbol of a bird with a twig in its beak and bears the word in take . (g) Nine year old Arisus died" in peace". A number of inscriptions are included where baptism is implied (h) or actually stated (i) and (j). (h) From the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome we have an inscription to Apronianus who died aged "one year and nine months and five days". We are informed that his grandmother" asked the church that he might depart from the world as a believer" -an early case of an emergency baptism. (i) Another inscription from the same Catacomb is to Tyche, one year ten months and fifteen days. Tyche was baptised (accepit) the same day as her death. (j) Irene was baptised (acc[epit])six days before her death.1. Conclusion Overall, the evidence from the post-apostolic period is inconclusive. There is little reference to the baptism of children and where there is reference it is ambiguous. Some have concluded from this that children were not baptised. Others have concluded that the baptism of children was simply taken for granted. It is certainly the case that the baptism of children was the norm at the time of Tertullian, i.e. by the end of the second century. According to Origen, whose family had been Christian for several generations - going back to the middle of the second century, the practice of baptising children was received from the apostles. Interestingly Origen appeals to the apostolic tradition whereas Tertullian does not. While the meaning of Polycarp's "eighty-six years have I served him" has not been finally determined, that which dates his service to Christ from the moment of his baptism is the one which carries with it least problems. Polycarp was born around 70 AD. What we can say with confidence is that there is nothing in the evidence from the post apostolic which contradicts our conclusions with respect to the baptism of children from the biblical data.


Other Sections of the Report an be reached by clicking on the following Chapter headings :

Institution of Baptism

Origins of Water Baptism

The Baptism of Children: Old Testament Evidence

The Baptism of Children: New Testament Evidence 

The Baptism of Children: Extra-Biblical Evidence

The Proper Subjects for Baptism 

The Mode of Baptism 

The Way Forward

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