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This question is asked in response to this recent question: Where does the idea that faith must be a condition for baptism originate from?

I am trying to find evidence from the writings of Clement, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr that justification/salvation depends upon undergoing water baptism and that faith in Christ Jesus is not a pre-condition. So far, this is what I have found:

Clement of Rome: “And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Clement, 32).

Polycarp Letter to the Philippians: “... for as much as you know that it is by grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”

Unfortunately, I do not have access to relevant and reliable material and would appreciate some help in finding out what the early Church Fathers believed about water baptism. I do not want to go beyond A.D. 325 unless that becomes necessary. Thank you.

EDIT: I have changed the question to focus more on what the early church fathers had to say about baptism, in the hope that will encourage some input from the community.

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  • I'm a little puzzled by your question. Clearly the same pre-Nicene church fathers who approved of the practice of infant baptism (which we can safely say that this baptism INCLUDES forgiveness of original sin as well as regeneration) will ALSO hold (indirectly, or maybe explicitly as in their writings) that faith is NOT a pre-condition for baptism. No one expects a baby to have faith as faith by definition is a conscious act of trust in God enabled by grace. This is a very different question than "whether faith is necessary for salvation", which I think those same fathers would say "Yes!" Jun 13, 2023 at 13:13
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    Asking questions is sometimes harder than answering them! I was hoping to avoid the subject of infant baptism by focusing specifically on whether there are any EARLY writings suggesting that faith was not a pre-condition for baptism or that it is the act of baptism itself that saves. I note you refer to regeneration and so it would be helpful if there are any early writings explaining what the early church fathers believed about the timing of regeneration, especially if it happens at the sacrament of baptism itself.
    – Lesley
    Jun 13, 2023 at 14:11
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    This Q&A proposes that in the understanding of the early church fathers within the period of your question, "born again" = "regeneration" and that happens at baptism, even infant baptism. Of course in light of various denominations today, it's important to separate the terminologies and to be careful to use them appropriately. Jun 13, 2023 at 15:46
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    I think that the question is very clear, myself. It may well be confusing to those who assume that 'pre-Nicene fathers' refers to a Rome-dominated clergy. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 13, 2023 at 16:39
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    After searching, it is clear to me that faith was a necessary precondition. It seems one searches in vain for the portrayal of infant baptism in the very early church.
    – SLM
    Jun 14, 2023 at 16:33

2 Answers 2

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They said an awful lot - far too much to detail here! One way of finding an answer is to read explanations from official Catholic sources as to developing changes regarding the connection between faith and baptism with regard to salvation, as to whether one or the other saves.

Some Christians believe that BOTH are needed, others believe that as long as you have faith in Christ you don't have to be baptised to be saved, while yet others say that baptism is the key to salvation as you can't be saved without it. But as you ask about about early Church teaching, pre-A.D. 325, that narrows the quest down considerably. For a start, here are a few points from a Catholic article explaining how a "developed", or "mature" view on baptism arose:

"The baptism of adults is presupposed throughout the NT and the early Christian period... Infant baptism developed naturally out of the entirely different circumstances in which Christianity found itself when society had become Christian... But child baptism became the normal practice from about the 4th or 5th century onwards... even today, through the intermediary of their godparents infants are treated at their baptism as if they were adult: they [the godparents] renounce Satan, confess the faith, and state that they wish to be baptized." Encyclopedia of Theology, p69, article by Burkhard Neunheuser, Burns & Oates, 1961

Of interest, Tertullian condemned an instance of infant baptism in 197. Despite that, baptising infants gained ground. However, the quote above shows that baptism of babies and infants was not encouraged by the earliest Church Fathers (though it did happen). Around 200 a baptismal liturgy was written down, and its development can be traced via Justin's Apology (I, 61), Tertullian's treatise on baptism, and especially Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition (circa 200). Clearly, babies and infants cannot do what is required of these baptismal candidates. Quoting again from the previous source:

"First comes a lengthy catechetical preparation of the candidates; next an immediate preparation of fasting, prayer, and solemn promises, then the solemnity of baptism itself. Baptism proper is an actual bath in flowing water. The candidate is thrice immersed, and each time one of the divine names is pronounced (epiclesis). Finally comes the anointings and the imposition of hands. The new Christian is now admitted to the common worship of the faithful, to the kiss of peace, and to the Eucharist. These basic lines were kept unchanged subsequently. The ritual added a confession of faith, the renunciation of Satan and the baptismal promises." (Ibid. p. 68, bold italics mine)

This article suggests that a person only became a Christian at baptism, and so only then able to be admitted to worship, but I am not able to say if that is so. If a confession of faith at baptism was only added later to the liturgy for baptism, the question arises as to whether faith was viewed as the first step that would lead to baptism (as an evidence of having faith). A problem here is that the Catholic article I'm using is not clear (to me). When I turned to read its 57 columns of text on 'Faith' (pp.496-510) I finally hoped to find an answer under the sub-heading, Faith and salvation (p.508). Here are some points:

"The role of faith in salvation is fundamental (D 801). By faith man recognizes the reality and the absolute gratuitousness of God's initiative in saving sinful humanity through Christ (Rom 10:9; 3:22-30; 4:16; Gal 2:16; 8:22, 24; Eph 2: 8-10). Man can only be saved by sharing in the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, which means that he must first of all affirm the reality of this mystery (1 Cor 15:12-16) and freely accept the economy of salvation that God has established and revealed in his Son (Rom 10:16; 2 Cor 9:13; 2 Thess 1:8). Thus faith is man's response to God revealing himself as man's saviour. It is an attitude which accepts salvation as sheer grace, renouncing all pride in one's own works (Rom 3:22, 24, 27; 4:2, 20: 1 Cor 1:29; 4:7; Gal 2:16). Man's response to the absolute gratuitousness of God's saving intervention is faith. Hence faith confesses the grace of God." (Ibid. p. 508, article by Juan Alfero)

Now, that article was published in 1981, not 198! The reason for its inclusion is that the early Church Fathers (who went by the scriptures) would likely agree with all of the above re. the Faith and salvation sub-heading, and understand why those many Bible texts supported such a stance on faith in relation to salvation. However, I found nothing in that 1981 section that mentioned baptism, let alone connected it with salvation.

The "evolution of the baptismal liturgy" into "the form we now have in the Roman Ritual" (Ibid. p. 68) includes views such as descent into the waters washing away one's old morality (i.e. sin), ascent from the waters being the passage from death to life. For that point an ancient source is given, but not a biblical one. It is Pseudo-Barnabas; Shepherd of Hermas.

"Thus baptism is a bath that washes away sin, the free remission of the penalties of sin and illumination on the say of salvation. It perfects and seals us, transports us over the frontier of death into the life of Christ (St. Clement)". (Ibid. p. 69)

Origen fits these truths into his own profound view of the history of salvation... the outward form of baptism derives its meaning from the spiritual realities... gives us the grace of Christ, and thus bears us onward to the final stage of baptism, the final resurrection from the dead... It completes sacramentally the ascetical death of the catechumen; but 'If anyone comes to the washing of water (continuing) in sin, then his sins are not remitted' (21st homily on Luke). (Ibid. pp.69-70) [Note, Eastern Orthodoxy views Origen as a heretic due his views on dualism]

Given that those articles give the modern Catholic view of developments from the early Church till now, the desire to show continuity will be present, so if there is discontinuity, another source will be needed to show this. Hopefully, other answers will provide more precise quotes from the early Church Fathers.

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What follows is a list of quotes from the early fathers which shows very clearly that not baptizing infants was a newer change in church history. The prevailing, standard, widespread practice was to baptize infants:


INFANT BAPTISM - HISTORICAL SUPPORT

For historical support of infant baptism, note the following sources:

  • Eighty and six years have I served Him.1 Polycarp (69-156 AD)

  • And many, both men and women, who have been Christ's disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years.2 Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)

  • [Jesus] came to save all through the means of himself-all, I say, who through him are born again to God-infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.3 Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD)

  • 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. . . . Let them become Christians [i.e. in baptism] when they have become able to know Christ.4 Tertullian, (155/160-220/230 AD) De Baptismo, in which he speaks against infant baptism. His opposition would seem to indicate that it was standard practice at the time.

  • First you should baptize the little ones. All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak, or another who belongs to their family. Then baptize the grown men, lastly the women.5 Hippolytus (170-235 AD)

  • Infants are baptized for the forgiveness of sins.6 Origen (185-254 AD)

  • The church received from the apostles the tradition to give even little children to baptism.7 Origen

  • But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized or sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. . we all judge that mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. . . . Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift. Age may have a difference in the increase of our bodies, according to the world, but not according to God.8 Cyprian (200-258 AD)

  • Augustine, (354-430 AD) De Baptismo Contra Donatistas, 4, says in regard to the baptism of small children that the church universal holds to this, and it has not been established by councils but has always been held and handed down by apostolic authority [and] is most correctly believed.9 Chemnitz, Loci, II, p. 727

1 Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p.41

2 Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 167 (15, 6).

3 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885, Reprinted 1973), p. 391 (4, 7-9).

4 Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 678.

5 Burton Scott Easton, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, (Archon Books, 1962), p. 45 (XXI, 3,4).

6 Samuel Miller, Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable, (from Origen's Homily 8 on Leviticus 12), http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualnls/baptism3.htm

7 Samuel Miller, Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable, (from Origen's Commentary to the Epistle to the Romans, Lib. 5), http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualnls/baptism3.htm

8 Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, p. 354 (58).

9 Martin Chemnitz (translated by J. A. O. Preus), Loci Theologi, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989), Vol. 2, p. 727.


Likewise, here are some more citations from the fathers showing the widespread practice of baptizing infants:

History establishes the fact that infant baptism was practised in the early church.

a) Note the following testimonies.
    -1) The Synod of Carthage (256?) discussed the question (raised by Bishop Fidus) if Baptism might properly be administered before the eighth day. The Synod answered in the affirmative: Grace may not legitimately be withheld from any one who has been born.
    -2) Origen (+254) declares: Ecclesia ab apostolis traditionem suscepit etiam parvulis baptismum dare.
    -3) Tertullian (+220) opposed infant baptism in a way which shows that it was then an established custom.
        cf Cunctatio baptismi utilior est, praecipue tamen circa parvulos: 1. Ouid enim necesse ... sponsores etiam periculo ingeri? ... 2. Quid festinat innocens aetas ad remissionem peccatorum? (why bring the innocent of age to the remission of sins? literally)

    -4) Irenaeus (+202; disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John): Omnes venit (Christus) per semet ipsum salvare; omnes, inquam, qui per eum renascuntur in Deum, infantes, et parvulos et pueros et juvenes et seniores.
    -5) Justin Martyr's (~165) phrase: μαθητεύεσθαι ἐκ παίδων (cf. Mt 28:19) is most satisfactorily understood of Baptism (catechumenate?) particularly in view of the fact that he regards Baptism as the N.T. counterpart of O.T. circuncision.
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    I appreciate those quotations but am still unclear if the church (from around the year 47) believed that it is faith that saves or if an baby/infant/child has to be baptised in order to be saved. My son's grandmother (Roman Catholic) was afraid if he died before being baptised then he would end up in limbo.
    – Lesley
    Jun 19, 2023 at 6:55
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    Hello Lesley, I didn't realize your question was far more a theological question than a historical one. Your question posits that either faith or baptism saves. But those are not mutually exclusive. God's word connected to water (in baptism) creates faith. It would be impossible to find passages that speak about water saving, since, in the view of the early church, the water didn't do anything. It was God's word that held the power to create faith and convey forgiveness. For a fuller answer, it might be better to re-ask the question but with that theological question in mind.
    – user24895
    Jun 19, 2023 at 14:50

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