What does it mean for the Orthodox Church to baptize children? How has infant baptism been viewed throughout the life of the Church? Where did the advocacy against infant baptism come from? What grave implications come from this belief? In this article, by the grace and guidance of God, I will answer these questions in the truth handed down century after century. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
Why Do We Baptize? Why Baptize Children?
Holy Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments in the Orthodox Church, together with Chrismation it joins the person to the body of Christ, the Church. Jesus Christ’s body was not just an outward expression, it was an indivisible part of His person and His saving incarnation. The body is so important to God (1 Corinthians 6:19) that He will raise us up with it (Philippians 3:21). The purpose of baptism is to remove the consequences of original sin, to wash away all other sins committed before the baptism if the person is beyond the age of infancy, and to unite the person with the body of Christ opening the door of salvation.
Except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God. – John 3:5 Just as children get a place at the dinner table, they get a place in the body of Christ. Baptism is for everyone, and we are all God’s children be it literally or spiritually. In the time of the Old Testament, infants were circumcised after eight days of birth, but baptism takes the place of circumcision in the New Testament as evidence of, “Ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism.” – Colossians 2:11-12
What Implications Come From Denying Infant Baptism?
I’m going to take from St. Augustine’s argument with Pelagius in the early 5th century to show how part of this debate still parallels the topic today especially in regards to original sin. If we hold that infant baptism is NOT biblical or correct then there are some necessary false assumptions that come with it:
1. That humans are primarily and originally separated by God for their own personal sins, not the curse placed upon humanity through Adam & Eve. See response to number two.
2. That humans are innocent until they reach a certain age, and only then do they have any type of sin. These first two assumptions are refuted in Romans 5:12 – “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…”
3. That there are humans who are saved apart from Christ, and therefore, there is another way to salvation besides Jesus depending upon your age. But as Acts tells us, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. – Acts 4:12
It is a form of Gnosticism to believe a child must know their original sin before they can be saved from it. I’d like to make the distinction between original sin (the fallen nature of all humanity) and personal sin (which children do not know the concept of yet). Advocates against infant baptism are correct in saying children are free of personal sin, but more often than not they are lumping together both personal sin and original (ancestral) sin as the same. Without making a distinction between the two, it leads to the misinterpretation that children do not need to be baptized.
The Protestant view that you must have the ability to know right and wrong before baptism directly opposes the Genesis story. For how did Adam & Eve sin if their eyes were only opened to the knowledge of good and evil AFTER they had sinned? Sin is by definition transgression of the law (1 John 3:4) and disobeying God. It simply does not follow. (Side Note: this is also not to be confused with inherited guilt, Orthodox reject this. While we inherit our fallen nature and the consequences of it through ancestral original sin, we do not inherit the guilt associated with it of directly personally causing it).
In the debate with St. Augustine, Pelagius considers humans to be born as morally neutral beings, who, due to influence and ignorance, quickly picked up the ‘habit’ of sin. This is the basic mindset of the Protestant west that would not become fully widespread until the time of Ulrich Zwingli. Pelagius was fully aware that to deny the efficacy of baptism for infants would be to forfeit any claim to Orthodoxy on his part. So in the end while they disagreed on original sin, both St. Augustine and Pelagius agreed on infant baptism. What are the Orthodox Church Fathers views on this subject? And how has it been viewed throughout the centuries?
Infant Baptism Throughout Church History
For the first two centuries after Christ, the practice of infant baptism was regularly done and was in no way controversial. The following is taken from Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, “St. Polycarp described himself as having been in devoted service to Christ for 86 years in a manner that would clearly indicate a childhood baptism. Pliny describes with amazement that children belong to the Christian cult in just the same way as do the adults. St. Justin Martyr tells of the “many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood.” St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote about “all who are born again in God, the infants, and the small children . . . and the mature.” St. Hippolytus insisted that “first you should baptize the little ones . . . but for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to their family.”
Tertullian, in the third century, is the first skepticism we see to the practice of infant baptism due to his heretical notion that sin committed after baptism is unforgivable. Postponing baptism grew because some Christians felt the need to counteract the false baptisms of the pagans at this time, wishing only to belong to the faith of the emperor (St. Constantine). So this postponement had nothing to do with the validity of the infant’s baptism. Many Church fathers who had a postponed baptism later advocated to families to baptize their new-born children, notably St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Cyril of Alexandria.
Controversy in the present sense against infant baptism did not come until the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. Surprisingly, both John Calvin and Martin Luther actually advocated for the practice of infant baptism. It was Ulrich Zwingli that is responsible for the dispute lasting to this very day. Zwingli and his students re-baptized themselves under the proclamation that their infant baptisms were invalid because they did not have professions of faith to go along with it. Shortly after, John Smyth would re-baptize his congregation and form the first baptist church.
There are still many Christians with well-intentions today that hold to this belief, while not seeing the irony in calling themselves baptists while advocating that certain groups of people (infants) NOT be baptized.
The Bible & Church Father’s On Infant Baptism
St. Ireneaus, “He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God [baptized]: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” – Against Heresies 2:22:4
St. Gregory the Theologian, “Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” – Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7
St. Augustine of Hippo, “Likewise, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that sacrament shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration, and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to lose no time and run in haste to administer baptism to infant children, because it is believed, as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ. Now he that is not made alive in Christ must necessarily remain under the condemnation, of which the apostle says, that ‘by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation’ [Romans 5:18]. That infants are born under the guilt [reatus, actually “liability”] of this offense is believed by the whole Church” -Treatise on the Origin of the Human Soul, Addressed to Jerome, Ch 7, #21
Infant baptism is biblical. While there is no individual description of an infant being baptized in the Bible, it does emphasize five entire household baptisms. The Household of Cornelius, Acts 11:13–14. The Household of Lydia, Acts 16:15. The Philippian Jailor’s Household, Acts 16:33. The Household of Crispus, Acts 18:8. The Household of Stephanas, 1 Corinthians 1:16.
The usual argument is that ‘household’ doesn’t mean children, yet many previous mentions of household in the Bible include children such as Genesis 7:1, Genesis 17:23, Genesis 18:19, Exodus 12:24-28, Leviticus 22:11, Numbers 18:1, 1 Timothy 3:4, 1 Timothy 5:4, Psalm 113:9, Ecclesiastes 2:7, and more.
When we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus Christ’s life and death (Romans 6:4), infants are also to be joined in this union. The life and death of Christ, reverses the primordial, generational, and personal fallen nature of this world, which every human being is called to become part of.
(Sources Taken From: St. Ireneaus – Against Heresies, St. Philaret Metropolitan of Moscow – Catechism of the Orthodox Church, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Ubi Petrus for the majority of the Church Father quotes).