Did Tertullian Reject Infant Baptism?


This discussion took place on FidoNet RCatholic in April 1998 with Sean Brooks ( quoted as SB> responding to a prison chaplain, Charlie Ray quoted as CR> ). Answers the question whether Tertullian (and the church in North Africa) rejected Infant Baptism (Paedobaptism). The passage in question from Tertullian is cited by Sean below:

Tertullian, treatise on BAPTISM 18,4 (c. AD 200-206)

"According to circumstance and disposition and even age of the individual person, it may be better to delay Baptism; and especially so in the case of little children. Why, indeed, is it necessary -- if it be not a case of necessity -- that the sponsors to be thrust into danger, when they themselves may fail to fulfill their promises by reason of death, or when they may be disappointed by the growth of an evil disposition? Indeed the Lord says, 'Do not forbid them to come to me' [Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16].

"Let them come, then, while they grow up, while they learn, while they are taught to whom to come; let them become Christians when they will have been able to know Christ! Why does the innocent age hasten to the remission of sins? ...For no less cause should the unmarried also be deferred, in whom there is an aptness to temptation -- in virgins on account of their ripeness as also in the widowed on account of their freedom -- until they are married or are better strengthened for continence. Anyone who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear its reception more than its deferral. Sound faith is secure of its salvation!"


Date: 04-15-98 / From: CHARLIE RAY / To: SEAN M. BROOKS / Subj: Infant Baptism

Hi Sean:

Quote: "It is perhaps not without significance, that the very tractate on baptism by Tertullian which plays such an important role in McDonnell's argumentation explicitly opposes infant baptism. This means both that around 200 infant baptism was already a reality in North Africa and that Tertullian's tractate must possibly be read in polemical context. Thus he may not just be describing the baptismal practice of his community, but also prescribing it."

From: CYBERJOUNRAL FOR PENTECOSTAL CHARISMATIC RESEARCH, Issue #2, "WATER BAPTISM IN THE CHURCH FATHERS" by Dr. Martin Parmentier

By the way, Dr. Parmentier is a charismatic Catholic. You might find his entire article interesting, even if you are not Pentecostal or charismatic. Dr. Parmentier contradicts my earlier opinion that infant baptism did not exist in North Africa but please note that he also says that Tertullian opposed it. Your quote from Tertullian supports that opinion.

CYBERJOURNAL FOR PENTECOSTAL CHARISMATIC RESEARCH, Response to Martin Parmentier on Baptism and Spirit Baptism in the Church Fathers by Fr. Kilian McDonnell

Quote: "We know that Tertullian protested against the practice of infant baptism and wanted babies to come to be baptized when they were more mature. We also know that Origen thought that infant baptism was an apostolic tradition. Whether infants were baptized in New Testament times is a matter of dispute. But no one disputes that when the church was in a mission situation, and the followers of Christ went out to preach the gospel, they preached to adults, not to infants. And therefore most of the baptisms were adult baptisms. But later, when there was a more stable Christian population, infant baptism became more common. This may have contributed to less awareness of the charisms. But the many non-liturgical references indicate that the charisms were a fact of the life of the early church. The charisms, including the prophetic charisms, never died out completely. A church without charisms is a non-church."

So I've got at least three scholars, two of whom are Roman Catholic, who agree that Tertullian opposed infant baptism, that Origen supported it on his belief that it was apostolic in origin. That means at least one point in favor of my argument -- the Church Fathers are not uniform on this issue even if a majority of them did support infant baptism.

Sincerely in Christ,

Charlie Ray, Chaplain

1 Timothy 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (NIV).

* Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide.

* Origin: Get All Your Fido Here! telnet://docsplace.dynip.com (1:3603/140)


Date: 04-15-98 / From: MICHAEL BRAZIER / To: CHARLIE RAY / Subj: Tertullian

"For the Snark was CHARLIE RAY, you see."

On Tuesday April 14 1998 09:30, CHARLIE RAY wrote to SEAN M. BROOKS:

SB> Misleading and incomplete. Tertullian did not REJECT infant baptism. I'll quote the relevant text from his treatise BAPTISM (18,4, written inter AD 200-206): >>

CR> You're splitting hairs, Sean. To say that Tertullian did not *specifically* condemn infant baptism begs the question when clearly he was against it as your quote shows. >>

The quote (I read it) shows that Tertullian thought it better to baptize in adulthood. It does not show that Tertullian thought baptizing infants was a bad idea. "A is better than B" does not condemn B. And given Tertullian's general manner, if he had really condemned baptizing infants, he'd have done so with violent invective, not with moderation.

CR> In fact, the North African church believed that if one sinned after baptism that salvation was lost!! So why risk the eternal salvation of infants by baptizing them? >>

Which means they weren't at all Calvinist in North Africa.

Michael Brazier

* Origin: Bellman's Island (1:397/6.4)


Date: 04-19-98 / From: SEAN M. BROOKS / To: CHARLIE RAY / Subj: Tertullian

Greetings, Mr. Ray. Hope you're well.

=> Quoting CHARLIE RAY to SEAN M. BROOKS <=

SB> Misleading and incomplete. Tertullian did not REJECT infant baptism. I'll quote the relevant text from his treatise BAPTISM (18,4, written inter AD 200-206) >>

CR> You're splitting hairs, Sean. To say that Tertullian did not *specifically* condemn infant baptism begs the question when clearly he was against it as your quote shows. >>

I dissent. Tertullian was NOT unqualifiedly opposed to infant baptism. All he said was that it MAY be better to postpone baptism. As Michael Brazier put it, "A is better than B," is not the same as CONDEMNING B. Given Tertullian's notorious reputation for often uncharitable invective, he would certainly have made sure the entire Roman Empire knew of his rejection of paedobaptism if that was truly what he thought. Take note of the striking restraint he showed in his treatise BAPTISM 18, 4.

CR> In fact, the North African church believed that if one sinned after baptism that salvation was lost!! >>

Which does not change the fact that infant baptism was most emphatically practiced in North Africa. OTHER north African Catholics like St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage; and St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo certainly approved of infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. I'll quote from St. Cyprian's "Letter of Cyprian and his Colleagues to Fidus," 64 (or 59), 2 (AD 251-252):

"As to what pertains to the case of infants: you said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judged that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born."

A very significant text. Note how a council of bishops presided over by St. Cyprian denied that infant baptism should be delayed. Again, note the implication: paedobaptism was already an old and widespread practice. Note how the council insisted that baptism/baptismal regeneration should not be denied to anyone. Including infants!

Sorry, but your notion that the Catholic Church in Roman Africa reprobated infant baptism is simply not true.

CR> So why risk the eternal salvation of infants by baptizing them? Most of the Christians at Carthage waited until they were very old or on their death beds practically before they would receive baptism because of the extreme emphasis on holiness and good works -- legalism. >>

A custom which came to be criticized and reprobated very strongly in the fourth century.

CR> Sorry, but Origen supported infant baptism while Tertullian rejected it as your *own* quote below proves. >>

Wrong. Tertullian did NOT reject or condemn infant baptism in his treatise BAPTISM 18,4. Again, he only ADVOCATED in MILD terms DELAYING baptism.

CR> Origen, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, endorsed infant baptism but had no anthropological understanding of original sin to justify it >>

Again, I dissent. Origen had a sound understanding of Original Sin. As evidence, I'll quote from his HOMILIES ON LEVITICUS 8,3 [post AD 244]:

"Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. ...And if it should seem necessary to do so, there may be added to the aforementioned consideration the fact that in the Church, Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed if there were nothing in infants which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would seem superfluous."

Note the implication, infant baptism is taken almost for granted as a widespread and old practice. And, yet again is baptismal regeneration stressed.

CR> while Tertullian on the other hand had an excellent understanding of original sin and it's corruption of human nature. Tertullian's weakness was his rejection of infant baptism, according to Pelikan. (See THE EMERGENCE OF THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (100-600): THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION: A HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE. Jaroslav Pelikan. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1971). page 290-91 >>

Thank you for the Pelikan recommendation. I have read approving comments about his learning and irenic spirit. But, P recommends Kelly's book (Early Christian Doctrines) as being more thorough and detailed.

Tertullian, treatise on BAPTISM 18,4 [inter AD 200-206]:

"According to circumstance and disposition and even age of the individual person, it MAY be better to delay Baptism; and especially so in the case of little children. Why, indeed, is it necessary - if it be not a case of necessity - that the sponsors to be thrust into danger, when they themselves may fail to fulfill their promises by reason of death, or when they may be disappointed by the growth of an evil disposition? Indeed the Lord says, 'Do not forbid them to come to me' [Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16].

"Let them come, then, while they grow up, while they learn, while they are taught to whom to come; let them become Christians when they will have been able to know Christ! Why does the innocent age hasten to the remission of sins? ...For no less cause should the unmarried also be deferred, in whom there is an aptness to temptation, - in virgins on account of their ripeness as also in the widowed on account of their freedom, - until they are married or are better strengthened for continence. Anyone who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear its reception more than its deferral. Sound faith is secure of its salvation!"

SB> Note how Tertullian did NOT condemn the baptism of infants/children. All that he thought was that it MAY be better to defer baptism until a later age. Note as well the implication, infant baptism was already an ancient and widespread practice in the early Catholic Church. Last, note how Tertullian believed in baptismal regeneration. Otherwise he would not have talked about the "innocent age hasten[ing] to the remission of sins." >>

CR> The fact is, Sean, that Tertullian and the North Africans DID NOT baptize infants. >>

Actually, I and others have shown how seriously mistaken you were to say this of Roman Africa. Recall my extract from St. Cyprian. I.e., paedobaptism was an OLD practice in North Africa.

CR> Quote: "It is perhaps not without significance, that the very tractate on baptism by Tertullian which plays such an important role in McDonnell's argumentation explicitly opposes infant baptism. >>

And, as you know, I do NOT agree that Tertullian UNQUALIFIEDLY opposed or rejected infant baptism. All that can be reasonably inferred is that it MAY be better to postpone baptism. I repeat: A is better than B is NOT the same as CONDEMNING B.

CR> This means both that around 200 infant baptism was already a reality in North Africa and that Tertullian's tractate must possibly be read in polemical context. >>

No objection per se. But, I would add that Tertullian's comments about POSSIBLY deferring baptism are stated in mild terms. And, baptismal regeneration was obviously an OLD belief and teaching since infants were being baptized. All the Fathers agreed on the reality of that doctrine.

CR> Thus he may not just be describing the baptismal practice of his community, but also prescribing it." >>

I dissent. Tertullian was merely setting out his personal opinion. And, in quite mild terms!

CR> By the way, Dr. Parmentier is a charismatic Catholic. You might find his entire article interesting, even if you are not Pentecostal or charismatic. >>

Thank you for the reference. Alas! It's impossible to read every thing one should.

CR> Dr. Parmentier contradicts my earlier opinion that infant baptism did not exist in North Africa but please note that he also says that Tertullian opposed it. >>

Which is what I and others have been trying to tell you. But, I'm naturally glad you're conceding that infant baptism was indeed practiced in Roman Africa circa AD 190.

CR> Your quote from Tertullian supports that opinion. >>

It does not. How can you infer from the extract I posted that Tertullian OPPOSED or rejected paedobaptism? All he said was that it MAY be better to postpone baptism (plus giving reasons for thinking that way).

CR> Quote: "We know that Tertullian protested against the practice of infant baptism and wanted babies to come to be baptized when they were more mature. We also know that Origen thought that infant baptism was an apostolic tradition. Whether infants were baptized in New Testament times is a matter of dispute. >>

Agreed.

CR> But no one disputes that when the church was in a mission situation, and the followers of Christ went out to preach the gospel, they preached to adults, not to infants. And therefore most of the baptisms were adult baptisms. But later, when there was a more stable Christian population, infant baptism became more common. >>

Correct.

CR> This may have contributed to less awareness of the charisms. But the many non-liturgical references indicate that the charisms were a fact of the life of the early church. The charisms, including the prophetic charisms, never died out completely. A church without charisms is a non-church." >>

Ah! Very interesting. Fr. Yves Congar discussed somewhat similar matters in his book TRADITION AND TRADITIONS.

CR> So I've got at least three scholars, two of whom are Roman Catholic, who agree that Tertullian opposed infant baptism >>

As long as you understand that Tertullian at most opposed, but did NOT condemn infant baptism.

CR> that Origen supported it on his belief that it was apostolic in origin.

Amen!

CR> That means at least one point in favor of my argument -- the Church Fathers are not uniform on this issue even if a majority of them did support infant baptism.

Which does not change the FACT that the overwhelming majority APPROVED of infant baptism as being of divine/apostolic origin. Or, that they ALL taught baptismal regeneration. Including Tertullian!

see also Born Again: Baptism in the Early Fathers

Pax tecum. Sean

... HARVEST OF STARS, by Poul Anderson

* Origin: Orion BBS "where Sean Brooks reads his mail!" (1:324/272)

SeanMBrook@aol.com


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