Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How Justin Martyr Proves That Infant Baptism Is Of Apostolic Origins

In many previous posts, we have tackled the subject of infant baptism. In those articles, I have ardently defended this practice as truly rooted in Scripture. For that reason, I will not go over all the Scriptural defenses of the doctrine of infant baptism. If one is interested, all my other posts on the subject can be found here on my blog.

A secondary defense, however, is a legitimate appeal to the practice of the early church. When I say “early church,” I am not referring to the 4th or 5th Centuries, either. I’m talking about the period within a generation or so of the Apostles. If we can determine the Church’s practice during this era, it will be very instructive for us.

You may wonder about the legitimacy of such an appeal, but let me demonstrate how I intend to use it. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of living veterans of WWII. There are indeed perhaps one or two living veterans of WWI. If and when a discussion arises about details and circumstances of life during this period of time, we have direct access to people who can either verify or falsify various opinions about that era. If someone makes a faulty or inaccurate assertion about that time period, one of the thousands of people who were there can correct the false statement beyond question, because they were eyewitnesses.

Similarly, if we go back far enough into Church history and see something that was not taught by the Apostles being claimed to have been of Apostolic origin, we should expect to find protest from any other writer of the time who lived during any part of the Apostolic era. I said all that to say this: If we find infant baptism early enough in Church history, and we find no opposition to it at all from any quarter, then we may safely assume that the practice ruffled no feathers among those who belonged to the older generation and had actually been later contemporaries of the Apostles.

And this is precisely what we find! Justin Martyr claimed that "many" male and female Christians had been "illuminated through the Name of Christ." Such "had been disciples to Christ from childhood" (1st Apology 15:6). These people had obviously been 'sexually pure' when infants and little children. Justin is asserting that they had remained sexually pure thereafter -- and were continuing to "remain pure" even "at the age of sixty or seventy years."

The passive verb “made disciples” - (ematheteuthesan), in this place, as everywhere else in Justin’s writings, means "to become a disciple," that is, 'taught' follower of Jesus. This passive word was also used by Justin elsewhere -- to refer to baptism. Justin's word "illuminated," of course, was his regular cryptogram for "baptized," which was a device for evading persecution. A.C. Barnard remarks in his book I Have Been Baptized, writes: "This refers to the time when they received their status of discipleship -- i.e. at [and indeed right before] their baptism. Thus, they must have been baptized circa 80-90 A.D." (Cf. Justin's 1st Ap. chs. 15:6 and 61 & 65 with A.C. Barnard's I Have Been Baptized, DRC Bookroom, Pretoria, 1984, p. 78.)

Barnard places their baptism in 80 or 90 AD because he dates Justin’s 1st Apology to 150 AD. So, according to Barnard's understanding of Justin’s words in the quotation above, those lifelong 70 year-old disciples had been baptized when they were infants. That, believes Barnard, would have been around 80 AD, which is still during the apostolic era.

Barnard assumes a late date for the writing of the New Testament. Nevertheless, even had it been written a decade or so earlier, Justin's testimony would still suggest that infant baptism was an Apostolic practice; because at least some Apostles were still alive around 80 A.D!

More than this, the Anglican author William Wall has pointed out something extremely important: Justin's word ematheteuthesan -- 'were discipled' or 'made disciples' -- is the exact same word that Matthew used in expressing Christ's command in the Great Commission. This is Christ's injunction to His ministers to "'disciple' all the nations" - and to make them into His followers. We must ask: What nation has no children?

But Wall continues: "Justin wrote but ninety years after St. Matthew [28:19], who wrote about fifteen years after Christ's ascension...They that were seventy years old at this time [when Justin wrote], must have been disciples to Christ in their the midst of the apostles' times -- and within twenty years after St. Matthew's writing." (Wall's History of Infant Baptism, Vol. I pp. 66-171) So, when Justin was writing around 150 A.D., some of his acquaintances had been Christ's disciples already since their childhood -- and for "sixty or seventy years." This means they had already become Christian disciples or 'taught ones' around 80 A.D., and thus during the apostolic age itself.  

Had infant baptism been an innovation of the later post-Apostolic age, it seems very peculiar, to say the least, that we do not hear of complaints against this innovation by older Christians who knew the Apostles and had witnessed their actual practice regarding baptism. Thus it is safe to assume that Origen was correct when he asserted that infant baptism was an Apostolic practice. 

In case that wasn't clear enough, let me state it again. Justin tells us of people who were baptized as infants during to Apostolic era; no one living during the Apostolic era complains about this as an innovation. Therefore, we may conclude that the practice originated with the Apostles themselves. It is from them that the Church learned this practice.


  1. Thanks, Gary, for your observations.

    The key item that I take issue with in the Baptist objection is the ignoring of the Old Testament as a source for doctrine and practice. Who says that New Testament alone is to be the source of material for the Church’s doctrine and practice? This is a terrible position. It betrays a defective view of Scripture.

    However, my main purpose in this article was to present the historical precedent for the practice. By showing it historically dates to the Apostolic era, we present a insurmountable hurdle for those who claim that infant baptism is a later innovation. There are several other posts on this blog dealing with the subject and several more on the way.

  2. You article is excellent. I am posting a link to it on my blog.

  3. Have you considered the Didache, very hard for me to see anything but credo baptism in its words?
    Have you read Ferguson.'s "Baptism in the early church" His assertion is that credo was original but the church very early on allowed for pastoral reasons allowed infant baptism to dieing infants. This he asserts due to the fact that the inscriptions for dead Christian infants almost always seems to have baptism happening just before they deceased.

    1. The Didache is addressed to adult converts, so what is says about baptism has no bearing on the issue of when it was administered. If a person was converted from paganism, he or she would never have been baptized, hence the admonitions of the Didache.

      Moreover, the Didache is concerned with only two things: (a) that the Trinitarian baptismal formula be used in its administration; and (b) that no one quibble about the mode. He essentially says, “Use whatever water you have: warm, cold, running or stored. Just do it in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Nothing at all in this has any possible bearing on the credo-paedo debate. The whole Greek text Chapter 7 of the Didache (the only chapter which mentions baptism) is 86 words. It is a mere four short sentences.

      As far as Ferguson's book goes, I am not familiar enough with it to take it on in much detail. But knowing that his denominational affiliation is stridently anti-paedobaptist, one has to wonder whether this presupposition has not played a part in reading the evidence. That may sound like an ad hominem argument; but so is his. - 'The Reformed want to see infant baptism in Church history, therefore they do.'

      Furthermore, as you describe it, his argument is based on his interpretation of the significance of some gravestone inscriptions. This only tells us that the infant were baptized. This doesn't at all relate to the theological rationale for the practice. If you want that, you need to read the Fathers' writings, not infer your own conclusions from some burial inscriptions.

      William Wall has written a four volume work on infant baptism in the early church, which even on the surface, appears to be more comprehensive in scope than Ferguson's work, and he arrives at the exact opposite conclusion. My time-line constructed from Justin Martyr in this very article, places infant baptism within the Apostolic Age – way before the 2nd or 3rd Centuries.


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