Tertullian Does Not Want You to Baptize Your Babies

TertullianJohn MacArthur has written a powerful work entitled “A Scriptural Critique of Infant Baptism.” My own awareness of this teaching came from an almost visceral anger toward it from paedobaptists (advocates of infant baptism). MacArthur has effectively given new life to the old debate on the practice of infant baptism. Both seminary trained theologians and internet know-it-alls have thrown down the gauntlet once again. MacArthur is really showing his brilliance with this work and I could not hope to improve upon it. I would however like to bring up an interesting point that further dismantles the paedobaptist’s already tenuous claims.

Paedobaptists often make an appeal to history. Essentially they make the claim that the early Church baptized infants, therefore it should still be practiced. While it is true that a small few in the third century made reference to baptizing infants, there is no evidence that any fathers in the first two centuries engaged in this practice.

I don’t need to go into the error of looking to tradition over Scripture here as MacArthur has covered it so well in his article. However, aside from the Sola Scriptura issue, the appeal to history is such an odd thing to do here for a few reasons. The first is the hypocrisy in doing so. There are very few references to infant baptism in the third century. Compare this with the fact that every church father in the first two centuries that spoke on eschatology was a premillennialist. Though there are bound to be one or two out there, I have never met a paedobaptist who was also a premillennialist. We have men directly tied to the writer of Revelation (Papias, Irenaeus) being premillennial. We have no such ties among early paedobaptists. So if the practice of the early church is really to be the model for the modern Church’s behavior then why aren’t paedobaptists premillennial?

The second point regards the inconsistency of the paedobaptist’s use of historical baptism. Paedobaptists largely baptize by means of sprinkling rather than immersion. Yet, as a matter of history many early fathers describe baptism as involving immersion. Out of a plethora, here are two quotes.

If they have placed their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water, they are blessed, because… they shall receive their reward in due time.”…we descend into the water, full of sins and filth, but come up [out of the water], bearing fruit in our heart, together with the fear of God and trust in Jesus in our spirit. Barnabas, from his epistle (130 A.D.)

Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same way in which we ourselves were regenerated: in the name of God…and of our savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. Christ said, `Except you are born again you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.'” “In order that he may obtain in the water, the remission of sins formerly committed, the name of God the Father is pronounced over whoever chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins… Justin Martyr, first apology chapter 61 (150 A.D.)

The next reason making an appeal to history is unwise is due to very strange Ante-Nicene ideas regarding baptism. Even great men of the faith taught things on baptism that are simply not Biblical. Clement of Rome for example believed that baptism exorcised demons. As seen directly above this paragraph, Martyr taught that water baptism was for “the remission of sins.” We sure would not want to take all early beliefs on baptism as strict truths.

Finally, one of the very earliest mentions of infant baptism was from a critique. Tertullian makes an interesting argument for why a baby should not be baptised.

And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary— if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks. (Tertullian on Baptism, 18; 208A.D.)

Tertullian is covering a pragmatic side of this debate. He argues that infants should not be forced into an act that can be perceived as an agreement to behave in a manner that is more Christ-like. This makes sense as an infant could not possibly understand the deep spiritual significance that baptism points to. Baptism is an ordinance of the church and should be understood to be as such by the receiver.  Indeed, Tertullian advocates a person waiting to be baptized until he or she is prepared to do so.

Notice how the paedobaptist’s appeal to history on this matter becomes murky awfully fast once anyone takes the time to do a little bit of research. It’s best to stick with Scripture as our source for truth.



  1. […] infant baptism. Most groups baptize adult converts. I'm going to have to insist you read this: Tertullian Does not Want You to Baptize Your Babies along with the links on the canon […]

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