It seems like yesterday I sat in the large amphitheater on those warm summer mornings. Our pastor had just finished his hour long sermon and like every Sunday the musicians made their way to the stage for the closing altar call. “Who knows if you’ll have another chance to accept Jesus?” he challenged the congregation. Dozens of people came forward to “ask Jesus into their heart” and to be submerged into the waters of baptism.
Adults and older children are welcomed with open arms and a warm towel as they exit the baptismal.But how do infants fit into this picture? Infant baptism is totally out of the question in this context. In fact, the pastor often said if you have been baptized as an infant you should come forward and be re-baptized.
The Orthodox Church views salvation and baptism differently.
Allow me to briefly note the process of salvation, known as theosis. I have been saved (2 Tim. 1:9), I am being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), and I will be saved (Rom. 5: 9-10). This is contrasted with the transactional commodification of faith often evident in some Protestant churches. Salvation is not something I obtain by praying a prayer or through intellectual assent. It is a relationship with God and a process of refinement with the ultimate goal of union with God (2 Peter 1:4). There is much that could be said about this; however, it is more suited for a future blog exclusively on the topic of salvation.
It wasn’t until I began my journey toward the Orthodox Church that I began to examine baptism more closely. Certainly I always valued adult conversion, but as a father leading his family toward the Orthodox faith I had to seriously think through the doctrine of infant baptism.
What evidence do we have in the Old Testament? The most evident correlation to baptism is the practice of circumcision. Circumcision was an act of obedience to God’s command and an outward sign of covenantal participation and identity. Jewish boys were circumcised on the eighth day, including Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 21:3-4). Abraham was our great example of faith and his household followed him. Just as Noah’s whole household was taken into the Ark (Gen. 7:1), Abraham and his whole household were circumcised (Gen. 17:23).We see this term “whole household” repeated quite often and children were equal members of the covenantal community.
In the Exodus narrative we see that the entire household of every family was taken out of Egypt and God’s institution of the Passover included everyone, including the children (12:24-28). Each child was a full participant and member of the covenant fully capable of eating the Passover sacrifice.
In the New Testament we see that John the Baptist was circumcised (Luke 1:59). Jesus himself was also subjected to circumcision on the eight day (Luke 2:21) and Jesus was also baptized by John in Matt. 3 as an example for every Christian. In this narrative we get a beauiful glimpse of the Trinity.
So what happened to circumcision? A thorough examination is beyond the scope of this blog. However, we see in Paul’s writings that circumcision was certainly not required for Gentiles who became Christians. The first Jerusalem Council argued against the “judaizers” who pressured Gentile believers to be circumcised and follow Jewish rituals (Acts 15:5).
We also see a clear emphasis on the “whole household” in the New Testament. There are no explicit statements of infant baptism, but there is also no clear abolition of baptism as it relates to children of the faith community.
Let’s look at a few of the examples from the New Testament. The entire household of Cornelius was saved (Acts 11:13-14), the household of Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippine jailor’s household (Acts 18:8), and “I baptized” the entire household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16). While some may argue that these households may have not included children, it seems more likely that there would be children included just as the Old Testament Jewish context included children.
One of the things we often forget in our hyper-individualized society is that covenants are not specifically an individual arrangement. There is certainly a requirement for the individual to remain faithful to covenant; however, covenants are instituted between God and the group (Israel and the Church) and within these covenants each household participates.
Early Church Attestation
The early church carried the torch of faith from the Apostles and continued the practice of infant baptism. They saw continuity between the Old Testament covenant of circumcision and the practice of infant baptism. Lets examine a sample of quotations from the early Church period.
Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan (A.D. 111-113) expressing his 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 (referring to their initiation through baptism).”
St. Irenaeus states in A.D. 190, “‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment 34).
In A.D. 215 St. Hippolytus states, “baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16).
In A.D. 388 St. Gregory of Naziansus says, “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. John Chrysostom tells us in A.D. 388, “you see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21).
Lastly, St. Augustine states in A.D. 408 that “the custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39).
In order to fully understand the controversy surrounding infant baptism we must also examine the opposition. For example, Tertullian’s objection must be understood within his context. He objected to infant baptism due to the heretical teachings of his time that sin after baptism was nearly unforgivable.
Some of the Christians of the third and fourth century were also not baptized as infants despite being born to Christian parents. Many postponed baptism because they wanted to counteract the pagans who were baptized simply to belong to the faith of the emperor. Postponing had nothing to do with the validity of infant baptism; rather, it was to show their genuine faith within their cultural context.
Martin Luther and John Calvin both supported and insisted on the importance of infant baptism.
“Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments” Martin Luther.
John Calvin also identified baptism very closely with circumcision and asserted infants are regenerated through baptism.
Opposition in its present form really developed after the Protestant Reformation. The radical Ulrich Zwingli brought about the first serious objections. His position seems to define much of the Evangelical/ Protestant position today. In fact, several of Zwingli’s followers even decided to be re-baptized. They claimed that their infant baptisms were insufficient believing valid baptism must follow a profession of faith.
Luther wrote against the Anabaptists, denying that faith needed to be present in order to baptize. He even pointed out that the “rebaptizers” could never really know for certain if they really had faith.
Is baptism just a sign? I remember hearing in my evangelical upbringing that baptism was an “outward sign of an inward decision.” While clearly it is an outward sign, it is so much more. Baptism has always been understood as entrance into the life of God: the saving covenant and a union with the whole people of God.
Do unbaptized children go to hell if they die? This question comes from a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. Orthodox Christians do not believe that we are guilty of Adam’s sin (original sin). We teach the doctrine of ancestral sin, which means we are guilty of our own sins and yet we do suffer the effects of the fall in the form of a fallen and sinful nature and world. While there is no original sin to “wash away” through baptism, we are all called to participate because our lives are defined by submission to God’s will (Luke 22:42), called to be baptized into Jesus’ life and death (Rom. 6:4), making us co-beneficiaries and bringing us into union with him (Eph. 1:3; 1 Cor. 6:17; 2 Peter 1:4).
What about the age of accountability or understanding? The concept of celebrating intellectual reason is a direct result of our modern age born of the Enlightenment. For an adult convert surely intellectual consent is important. However, faith fails if it does not go beyond our individual reason and intellectual assent. Personal faith is certainly important and yet our faith finds validity within the Church community.
I’ll admit that as a Protestant I didn’t really wrestle with the totality of evidence concerning infant baptism. Orthodox Christianity is very different. Adults and infants are equally baptized in water three times; in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then we are chrismated with oil in the sign of the cross.
I rejoice in the fact that our children were welcomed into the Church. Our youngest is too young to comprehend the faith, but like an adult we fully participate in the faith community through the sacraments and experience the wonder of God’s mercy. Whether we understand or not we experence the blessing of Orthodoxy through our senses; the beauty of sights, sounds, and smells of liturgy.
Through the Church the infant is supported and raised as a full member of the faith community. When we baptize a child we make a solemn promise to God- doing everything in our power to bring the Child to Christ which can only be done as we draw near to Christ.
Finally, it is through the incarnation that God redeemed all humanity at every age. A child of any age is capable of participating in the life of God and the holy mysteries. We are all baptized into the story of God’s people and into the life of Christ. Children may participate differently than adults in the life of the Church and yet their involvement is no less authentic.
Baptism involves physical elements like water, but it is so much more. It is spiritual, mysterious, and communal as we live into this historic and sacred sacrament.
Glory to God!