Which Came First–Original Sin or Infant Baptism?

I read something this morning that got me thinking again about the question of original sin. (See here and here for my previous thoughts.) The “question of original sin,” in my case, is the question of whether that phrase is a good and biblical way to talk about what went wrong when Adam sinned. I don’t doubt that Adam’s sin was the first or “original” human sin, but the term usually means more than that. It usually refers to “humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man,” and it often includes the idea that humans are born with a “sinful nature.” It is these latter concepts with which I am wrestling. The biblical data on such topics has been shrouded in encrusted layers of theological language for so long (to use rather negative language) that it is difficult for us to hear what Scripture itself has to say.

What I read this morning was something Louis McBride posted today over on the Baker Book House Church Connection blog, something about Augustine, infant baptism, and original sin. (A blog worth following for biblical interpreters and theologians.) His post summarizes an essay by Peter Sanlon entitled “Original Sin in Patristic Theology.”

Here is part of McBride’s summary:

[Sanlon] demonstrates that it was vitally important to Augustine to show that his views [about the doctrine of original sin] were not original with him but reflected the historic position of the church. Augustine offered “citations from Scripture, church fathers, and councils” in his defense and he “coined an epithet for the Pelagians who denied original sin. They were the novi hereticic, ‘new heretics.’” (91) An important doctrine tied to this was infant baptism. Augustine agreed with the Pelagians that babies had committed no actual sin. “Unable to commit any actual sins, the sin babies needed rescuing from had to be original sin.” (93) The antiquity of infant baptism was evidence, Augustine claimed, that the church had long accepted original sin.

Now, I have not read Sanlon’s full essay, nor have I read Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, so I can’t weigh all Augustine’s evidence well. But what caught my attention was how Augustine (AD 354-430) relied on infant baptism as strong evidence for the correctness of his views on original sin. His thinking went something like this: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true.

[amazon template=thumbnail11&asin=0802871089]McBride’s summary of Sanlon’s summary of Augustine reminded me of something else I’ve read. The following is from Everett Ferguson, in his magisterial volume entitled Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (see [amazon text=here&asin=0802871089]):

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. This fact does not mean that it did not occur, but it does mean that supporters of the practice [such as Augustine?] have a considerable chronological gap to account for. Many replace the historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations.

Arguments against the originality of baby baptism, in addition to its lack of early attestation, include: the essential nature ascribed to verbal confession and repentance; the liturgy designed for persons of responsible age; size of baptistries; and the lack of an agreed theology to support it (Chrysostom and the eastern churches vs. Augustine).

The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It because the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (856-57)

Okay, that was all background to prepare for this quote:

In the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy infant baptism was a principle support for the doctrine of original sin, rather than the other way around, since baptism was universally recognized as for forgiveness of sins. With the victory of Augustine’s arguments original sin became the reason for infant baptism in the western church. (857)

With Ferguson’s input, we can now update our flow chart of the logic of original sin and infant baptism: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true, (5) therefore infant baptism is necessary.

Does anyone else see any problems with this logic? I see at least two:

  1. The last point introduces circular logic. To believe infant baptism for the reasons given is about as logical as saying “We need a good speaker for our fall meetings, and we’ve asked Dwight to be our speaker, therefore Dwight must be a good speaker.” Sorry, you just might be disappointed.
  2. The premise is faulty. As Ferguson shows, there is “no firm evidence” that infant baptism was a practice with any “antiquity” (to use Sanlon’s term) older than about AD 150 or later. Since infant baptism is shaky, it is also shaky evidence for original sin.

Neither of these logical flaws proves that original sin is not a biblical doctrine. But our historical survey does show that the doctrine of original sin has been defended from early days in questionable ways. If original sin is a valid doctrine, it certainly is not valid because of infant baptism, contra Augustine.

So, to answer the title of this post, which came first–the doctrine of original sin or the practice of infant baptism? I still don’t know, but I’m still waiting for evidence that clearly shows that either belonged to the New Testament church.

[amazon template=thumbnail11&asin=0310230136]One good place to look for such evidence is in Gregg R. Allison’s book Historical Theology (see [amazon text=here&asin=0310230136]). His chapter on “Sin” summarizes the development of the church’s beliefs about, among other things, original sin. Perhaps I can do a follow-up post summarizing Allison’s evidence. For now, let this summary of Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest Christian writers (c. AD 100–165) whet your curiosity:

Justin Martyr focused on individual responsibility for sin, affirming that people “become subject to punishment by their own fault.” Although Justin linked humanity to Adam, the relationship is one of ancestor to descendants, each of whom sins individually. Thus, sinful people become “like Adam and Eve,” but they do so when they “work out death for themselves.” (343)

And in Justin’s own words:

The human race… from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile [deceit] of the serpent, and each one had committed personal transgression. — Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 88, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Schaff/Hendrickson, 1994), 1:243

Does this sound like original sin to you? Share your thoughts below.

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15 thoughts on “Which Came First–Original Sin or Infant Baptism?”

  1. The ‘Didache’, which supposedly dates to the late 1st or early 2nd century, has brief instructions for preparation for baptism and for baptism. It does not seem to make provision for infant baptism.
    I’m inclined to believe that infant baptism was a Gentile or pagan influence. If I understand correctly, Jewish youth were not required to take personal part in the sacrificial rituals until they were 13 years old. Some would claim that they were not accountable until they were 20. I’m open to correction on this.
    Those in favor of infant or child baptism sometimes refer to the accounts in Acts where a whole household was baptized. They argue that the household would have almost certainly included infants and/or children.
    Someone has said that we have just as much right to say that infants or children were not included in what we would expect to be believer’s baptism in these cases as others have a right to insist that everyone, regardless of age, was baptized. Not enough detail is given to prove either view. Again, I’m open to correction on this.

    1. Those suggestions sound reasonable to me, Wayne. I do know that Greek philosophy (especially neo-Platonism) powerfully shaped a lot of theology and practice in the church during the time of the Church Fathers. Of course, some would point to Jewish circumcision as precedent for infant baptism. But I don’t know when that argument was first made. It might have been an argument that was added to bolster an existing practice of infant baptism, much as the doctrine of original sin eventually came to be used that way.

      1. “some would point to Jewish circumcision as precedent for infant baptism”
        There could actually be an argument made for that to some extent, if you consider circumcision to have been an act to identify them as the covenant people of God, and the probability that Paul uses baptism metaphorically a few times to suggest identification with Christ and/or God’s people.
        The difference I would make though, is that literal circumcision was an identifying act after the 1st birth, whereas baptism, as an identifying act, is to be made with knowledgeable intent to signify being raised up with Christ in the 2nd birth.

        1. I agree. Circumcision was given to mark those who belonged to Abraham by the flesh. Christian baptism was given to those who belong to Abraham by faith. Infant baptism, it seems to me, has tended to blur the truth about how we are joined to God’s family. I don’t think Paul would think that is a small matter.

  2. For a recent Roman Catholic discussion of infant baptism and original sin, see this long document: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html#_ftnref11

    I am not well-versed in Roman Catholic ecclesiological structures, but this document sounds reasonably official, for it was approved by the pope for publication. Here is a summary of its origin: “The theme “The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without Being Baptized” was placed under the study of the International Theological Commission. In order to prepare for this study, a Committee was formed comprised by [a bunch of names]. The Committee also received the collaboration of [more names]. The general discussion on the theme took place during the plenary sessions of the ITC, held in Rome. In October 2005 and October 2006. This present text was approved in forma specifica by the members of the Commission, and was subsequently submitted to its President, Cardinal William Levada who, upon receiving the approval of the Holy father in an audience granted on January 19, 2007, approved the text for publication.”

    A few excerpts:
    “For the Greek Fathers, as the consequence of Adam’s sin, human beings inherited corruption, possibility, and mortality, from which they could be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. The idea of an inheritance of sin or guilt – common in Western tradition – was foreign to this perspective, since in their view sin could only be a free, personal act.”

    “The fate of unbaptised infants first became the subject of sustained theological reflection in the West during the anti-Pelagian controversies of the early 5th century. St. Augustine addressed the question because Pelagius was teaching that infants could be saved without Baptism. …In countering Pelagius, Augustine was led to state that infants who die without Baptism are consigned to hell.”

    “The Council of Carthage of 418 rejected the teaching of Pelagius. It condemned the opinion that infants “do not contract from Adam any trace of original sin, which must be expiated by the bath of regeneration that leads to eternal life”. Positively, this council taught that “even children who of themselves cannot have yet committed any sin are truly baptised for the remission of sins, so that by regeneration they may be cleansed from what they contracted through generation”. It was also added that there is no “intermediate or other happy dwelling place for children who have left this life without Baptism, without which they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, that is, eternal life”

    “So great was Augustine’s authority in the West… that the Latin Fathers (e.g., Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, and Gregory the Great) did adopt his opinion. Gregory the Great asserts that God condemns even those with only original sin on their souls; even infants who have never sinned by their own will must go to “everlasting torments”.”
    It wasn’t until the late medieval period (Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, etc.) that this consensus belief was challenged and softened in European theology. “Theologians came to the common view that these unbaptised children feel no pain at all,” although they probably never enjoyed the “beautific vision”–that is, approximately, the joy of seeing God.

    I haven’t read the whole article, but here is the conclusion, which follows extensive theological reasoning:
    “102. Within the hope that the Church bears for the whole of humanity and wants to proclaim afresh to the world of today, is there a hope for the salvation of infants who die without Baptism? We have carefully re-considered this complex question, with gratitude and respect for the responses that have been given through the history of the Church, but also with an awareness that it falls to us to give a coherent response for today. Reflecting within the one tradition of faith that unites the Church through the ages, and relying utterly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would lead his followers “into all the truth” (Jn 16:13), we have sought to read the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel. Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf. Jn 16:12). We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy (cf. 1 Thess 5:18).

    “103. What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of Baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of Baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. [This even though earlier the authors acknowledge that there is an “absence of positive evidence” in the NT for infant baptism.] Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.”
    Again, I did not read this whole document. But from what I did read, several observations:
    * It confirms that the idea of original sin was intimately tied from early on with the idea of infant baptism–and still is, in Roman Catholic thought.
    * It confirms that very few early Greek fathers believed in inherited sin or guilt.
    * It confirms that complex theological structures (such as RC views of original sin and infant baptism) that have little biblical foundation are likely to be questioned by subsequent generations and found wanting, or at least in need of major revision.

  3. Do have a look at my full essay in that Baker book. It footnotes an important article by ANS Lane which, I think, accounts for the evidence of ancient baptism more thoughtfully than does Fergusions book. Fergusions work is indeed a large book, but he with the heaviest book does not always explain the data best!! I don’t think that the conclusions at The end of Fergusions work are the only possible explanations even if the evidence he adduces.

    1. Peter, I don’t have access to your essay right now, so I did a Google search. I’m thinking that the Lane article you suggested might be the one entitled “Did the Apostolic Church Baptise Babies? A Seismological Approach.” I see it is referenced by Ferguson in his book (with some discussion of it in footnotes) and in at least one other book I own (Believer’s Baptism, ed. T. Schreiner and S. Wright). So I’m glad to know Lane’s perspective is receiving consideration. Thanks again for mentioning it.

    1. Peter, thanks much for taking time to comment on my post, and for the suggestion regarding further research. I would enjoy reading both the Baker book with your essay and also the Lane article as I have opportunity.

      Blessings to you, also.

  4. Well done!! You are correct – that is th article. It is available free online here:


    Worth a read. I realise that the way Augustine defended original sin poses a problem to baptist friends. To be honest I am unsure what is best to advise them! If Augustine’s line of argument was faithful – does it mean baptists can only inconsistently defend the full reality of original sin? Or does it mean they need to find alternative compelling approaches to original sin? I’m unsure really how the issues can best be developed. Anyway – grace to you. Enjoy the study.

    1. Thanks much, Peter, for the link. A quick Google search for the article left me dry.

      You raise interesting questions about Baptists and the defense of original sin. Of course, the first place to begin is to define the term “original sin,” since it is used in such varied ways.

      Just to be clear, my heritage is Anabaptist, not Baptist. So challenging infant baptism and focusing on personal sin and salvation have played a big role in my heritage.

      Thanks again for the comments and especially this link!

  5. The damnation of unbaptized infants and righteous persecution of nonbelievers, schismatics, and heretics, two doctrines formalized by St. Augustine at precisely the time of Constantine’s influence to create a theological background justification for an alliance between the Christian Church in the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire itself. Infant damnation was heroically opposed at the time by Augustine’s opponent Pelagius, but Emperor Honorius coerced the Church to condemn Pelagius in 418 AD. Augustine argued for righteous persecution, even to death, as morally justified to save souls from hell, and so baptism could not be left to individual choice. Much like citizenship in the Roman Empire was no longer optional after Emperor Caracalla made citizenship, with its taxation, universal in 212 AD, so Augustine made baptism mimic Roman citizenship. Further, Augustine made a new theological argument (infant damnation) for baptism that Christianity would be sculpted into the shape of Roman society.

    The primary Protestant Reformation, except for the smaller Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists, did not question infant damnation and righteous persecution. In fact, both these aspects of Augustinian Theology were championed, Luther and Calvin accusing Roman Catholicism of not being Augustinian enough. However, the political decentralization that the Protestant Reformation caused would nevertheless lead to Biblical rediscovery of decentralizing theological ideas.

    It is humorous how Augustinian religions today will try to deny that they believe in infant damnation while still using “semi-Pelagian” as a pejorative.

    I think there is one infant baptism reason I haven’t heard anyone consider. 1st: Christian baptism is not a substitute for Jewish circumcision, as we know Jewish Christians historically did both, and there was never a New Testament argument that they would or should stop, despite most Christians just assume it. However, the early gentile side of the Christian Church sought to separate themselves from Jewish Christians. One way we know they did was by making the Sabbath a fast day instead of a feast day. (I’ve seen this dated to about 140 AD, but don’t have a source.) So it might make sense that they would make baptism a substitution for circumcision.

    But as supporters of believer’s baptism, we should consider how they are different: Circumcision was an inheritance related birthright vs. baptism is an offered adoption offer of a death, burial, and resurrection.

    I further argue from Protestant Historicist eschatology, that “the little book opened” of Rev. 10 was the Bible on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press. The Bible open to the common people was a mass media revolution like the internet. The open Bible allowed for the rediscovery of believer’s baptism (and other suppressed doctrines).

    For background, I’m a long time fan of Everett Ferguson, and am primarily of the Churches of Christ perspective, but also influenced by some Nazarene/Messianic Jewish writers.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Carlton.

      “I’m a long time fan of Everett Ferguson.” I’m a fan, too!

      “Christian baptism is not a substitute for Jewish circumcision, as we know Jewish Christians historically did both.” Good observation.

      Interesting connection between “infant damnation” and persecution of heretics. I have not done enough historical research to evaluate all your suggestions here, but thanks for sharing.

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