Tertullian (~200): Children should not be baptized until they can ask for salvation themselves

Tertullian (~200): Children should not be baptized until they can ask for salvation themselves

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. For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred — in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom — until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.

Tertullian, On Baptism, Chapter 18

Tertullian previously addressed some doctrines which had fallen into custom in the church. Certainly, as we would see from his principles in the post linked above, Tertullian would not likely call into question a practice that he understood as having been “established by custom” due to it being a “handed down” tradition of “long-continued observance.” Rather, we should understand him to follow his own principle that we should “vindicate the keeping” of such a practice that would have been a custom or tradition at that point. Some of my comments from the post linked above are incorporated in this post below.

In Tertullian’s On Baptism in chapter 18 (cited above), we find the very first instance of the practice of infant baptism being mentioned at all – whether in Scripture or otherwise. It is a practice which Tertullian and many even after him could (and would) say that “If you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none.” (He stated this exact thing regarding some other early practices in The Chaplet.)

Tertullian makes a fourfold recommendation regarding infant baptism here. He states that:

  • The “little children” should have their baptism delayed.
  • Why should the sponsors be put into danger by the failure of the little child to fulfill the promises of the sponsors?
  • They should not be forbidden to come but be permitted to come to Christ “when they have become able to know Christ”.
  • They should not be given baptism until they “know how to ask for salvation” so that they can “have given to him that asks”.

This, at a very minimum, should cause you to take a pause if you are someone who believes that the practice of the entire church since the time of the Apostles has been to baptize all infants of Christian parents. If in this earliest mention of infant baptism we see that the practice is actually called into question rather than being accepted as the customary tradition of all of the churches, and we see Tertullian prescribing that children should not be baptized until they are at least old enough “to know Christ” and “ask for salvation”, then we have to ask ourselves some honest questions.

  1. In the year 200, was infant baptism not perhaps something that was actually being practiced in the church universal? We have no indication that it was.
  2. If we think it was being practiced in some places at a minimum (as it seems to be the case since he was recommending that it should not be done in favor of being delayed), why would Tertullian not have seen enough evidence that it was a universal custom in the Church which had become a tradition after being practiced in a widespread manner earlier on?
  3. Can you still honestly say that you think there was a universal custom from the earliest church of the practice of baptizing infants when the first written mention of it points to the fact that, by Tertullian’s reasoning which I have cited, it’s likely that the practice had not seen universal tradition and custom by this point?
  4. If it was questioned by Tertullian due to it not being practiced everywhere, what does this mean if you have always simply accepted that it was ever and always practiced and understood to be the custom since the time of the Apostles?
  5. Finally, since Tertullian was questioning it in his own context, ought we to assume that there were some cases where others followed his recommendation and waited to baptize their children until they could ask about it? And were there possibly other places where the practice was also being questioned?


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