By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
I was recently asked how our Orthodox Church might be able to defend the practice of infant baptism when it does not appear to be taught in the Bible. This is a good question, and I will respond in this brief post. I am not going to explore in any great depth the nature of baptism itself, but will focus on the practice of infant baptism in the early Church.
The Protestant friend of someone who contacted me quotes the Gospel of St Mark 16:16, interpreting Christian baptism as a believers’ baptism. That is, he says that only those who have the ability to believe can be baptised and that babies should not be baptised. He insists that it is very wrong and anti-biblical to baptise babies. This is a position that many Protestants would hold. But I do not believe that it is an argument which should disturb our faith or confidence in the grace of God which he pours out even and especially on little infants.
I will not repeat everything that I have written elsewhere about the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but I will repeat three arguments here in just a paragraph or two. In the first place, the Bible does not form the Church, as if the Bible comes first, and then those who read it and are convinced by it start gathering together. For much of the first century or so, the early Christians had no written New Testament, and then gained access to those authoritative writings in a piece-meal manner in different places at different times. From an early period the list of writings which became Scripture was close to that which we now recognise, but there was no one book available for the early Church. In the first centuries of the Church, each congregation would have had a collection of writings, slowly accumulated and copied by hand. The Church comes before the New Testament, and the Gospel is the Christian message of faith and hope, of new life in Christ, which was preached and heard before it was written down and read. Therefore it is a mistake to imagine that the Bible exists apart from the actual Apostolic community which produced it, and which properly interprets it. For a modern person to read the Bible and come up with their own different and contradictory opinions and interpretations only shows that this is not the authentically Christian manner in which we approach the Scriptures. We must read the Bible of the Church with the understanding and teaching and interpretations of the Church which produced it.
In the second place, to insist that our personal interpretations and opinions are of greater value than the actual beliefs and practices of the earliest Church, the Apostolic Church, seems the height of pridefulness, even if this is not intended. The earliest Church was taught by the very mouths of the Apostles, the Twelve and the Seventy, and by their own disciples, such that a great father such as St Irenaeus, had been taught the Christian faith by St Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, and he had in turn bee personally taught the faith by the Apostle John who lived in Ephesus. When we say that these great fathers and leaders of the Apostolic church did not understand the faith and taught error, but that we, living 2000 years later, know clearly what the Bible teaches, and have the proper understanding of Scripture which the Apostolic Church lacked, how can it be anything other than foolishness to think in such a way. We are free to come up with our own opinions and interpretations, but we are not free to say that these personal opinions represent original and authentic Apostolic Christianity, and if it does not represent Apostolic Christianity then it does not represent Christianity at all.
And in third place, it is not Biblical to insist that everything which we say and do in the Christian faith must be written in the Bible. This is not a Biblical teaching at all. All Scripture is inspired by God, but it is noteworthy that Protestants do not use the authoritative version of the Old Testament which our Lord Jesus and the Apostles used, the Septuagint, and instead use a late 10th century Jewish text that does not have the same content at all. It is also noteworthy that Protestants, who insist that they follow the Bible, have removed many of the books of the Bible that were used by the Jews before Christ, by the Lord Jesus and the Apostles, and by the early Church. More than that, the New Testament itself teaches us that there are many more things that the Lord Jesus did and said which were witnessed by the Apostles, and which he taught the Apostles, and St Paul himself is clear that his teachings were not only contained in his letters but in his preaching, and he instructs the Church to hold on to what he had taught both in his letters and in his preaching, that which was written down and that which was heard.
So my first response to this question about infant baptism would be to say, I appreciate that is your personal opinion, and you even believe that it is a Biblical argument, but there is no reason to find every practice described in detail in the Bible – that is also just your own personal opinion, and the way we find out what Apostolic Christianity teaches is to listen to the Apostolic Church, not invent a different Christianity for ourselves.
The modern Evangelical Protestant view of infant baptism, and baptism in general, is based on the opinion of Zwingli, one of the early Protestants. He naturally insisted that his views were Biblical, but in fact Luther disagreed entirely with him, and thought his views were Biblical, and Calvin also entirely disagreed with him, and thought that his views were Biblical. So we cannot even say that the rejection of Infant Baptism is the Protestant Biblical view. It is just one Protestant opinion among others. Luther and his followers baptise infants. Clearly they believe that it is consistent with the Biblical teaching. Calvin and his followers baptise infants. Indeed Calvin vigorously opposed his contemporary Servetus because he rejected infant baptism. He most certainly believed that infant baptism was consistent with Scripture.
It was Zwingli, and those who followed him, who adopted a symbolic view of baptism, and even considered that it was not necessary. But it was the more extreme Protestants in the Anabaptist movement, opposed by Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, who rejected infant baptism, not all Protestants by any means, not even most Protestants. It represented those who believed they could just read the Bible and decide for themselves what it meant, and this caused it to be splintered into many groups from the beginning, all insisting that they were the ones with the proper and true interpretations of the Scripture.
So, most of the Protestants, including the Anglican Church in England, never abandoned infant baptism. If we say that infant baptism is not Biblical then we must also say that most Protestants were not Biblical. Indeed, we would find it necessary to say that our opinion that infant baptism is wrong is opposed by all the Orthodox, all the Catholics, all the mainstream Protestants, but we are convinced that we are right, even though infant baptism was practiced everywhere before the 16th century, and is still practiced, as an example, by between 60-70% of all Christians in England.
It is not infant baptism which is an odd practice, rather it is the rejection of infant baptism which is a novelty and only represents a single strand of Protestantism. It is not possible to say that the Scripture does not teach infant baptism, since most of the Protestant leaders all believed that it did indeed teach and support infant baptism. We can only say that in my opinion, or in the opinion of the group I belong to, we do not believe in infant baptism, and that is not much of an argument at all. If we are going to compare opinions then I am convinced that it is only reasonable to believe that the earliest Christians, taught by the Apostles, had the correct understanding, and that any novel ideas, which are contrary to 1500 years of unanimous Christian teaching, cannot be authentic Christianity.
It might be enough to say that all Christians, except the Anabaptists of the 16th century, believed in and practiced infant baptism. The arguments of the major Protestant authorities, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, might be enough to convince another Protestant that infant baptism is entirely Christian. But I will provide a brief overview of the evidence showing that it is both Biblical and Apostolic.
We see that according to the Old Covenant of God with mankind, the people of God were circumcised, and circumcised their male children. This was a sign of their membership of the Covenant people of God. In Genesis 17:10-12 we read,
This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.
Of course this is not directly about infant baptism, and we would not expect it to be. But it shows us that God’s Covenant with mankind always included the children, even tiny infants of just 8 days old. It was necessary for the male babies of the Jewish people to be brought by their parents to be circumcised so that they might become members of the Covenant. Of course the New Testament also teaches us that faith was required in those who were circumcised, but this did not result in circumcision being restricted to those of older age. Rather these infants were brought to circumcision in the faith of their parents, and the Jewish people, and in the expectation that they would grow in the same faith themselves in due course.
In the Gospels we read that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, was also circumcised as an 8 day old male infant, before he could have any faith of his own, and in the faith of St Joseph, and St Mary, the Theotokos. This was on behalf of mankind, that he might fulfill the Old Covenant in his own life and ministry. In Luke 2: 21, we read,
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
And in Luke 1:59-50, we read about St John the Baptist,
So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.”
Circumcision is not the same as baptism, but it does represent the desire of God to unite to himself those who are only infants, and it does represent the membership of the community of the Covenant of God by those who are babies as well as of more mature years. It is important that both the Forerunner, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself, were circumcised as very young babies, receiving the gift of the membership of the Covenant, and entering into a relationship with God, before they could think for themselves or exercise a personal faith.
But we can also consider the attitude of the Lord Jesus to small children in his own ministry. Most famously, when he was surrounded by children and infants, brought to him by their parents, he rebuked the disciples for wanting to send them away. In Matthew 19:13-15 we read,
Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
We might note several aspects of this incident. These are little children, not even children, and we may imagine, quite reasonably that these are babies and toddlers, not older children. They are brought to Jesus by others, they are not yet of an age to go to him on their own, as perhaps was the boy with the lunch of loaves and fishes who was present at the Feeding of the Five Thousand. These little ones are brought to Jesus Christ to receive a blessing from him, they have nothing to give of themselves. He does not ask them to repent. He does not ask them to receive the Kingdom or make any preparation or response themselves. But seeing that their parents had brought these children to be blessed by him and to be touched by him, this is what he did for them. Indeed he commands his disciples, “Do not prevent these little children coming to me because the Kingdom already belongs to them”.
The author of one early homily on this passage says,
Only a little before, when receiving a child, Christ had said, “Unless you become like this child here, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” But now look at how the disciples had immediately forgotten the innocence of children and had kept them back as though they were not worthy to come to Christ, even though the disciples themselves had been invited to be like children. Who would merit to approach Christ if innocent children are kept back from him? The disciples thought they were doing honor to Christ, while actually they were diminishing his glory. For just as it is a loss to a physician if the sick are kept away from him, so it is a loss to Christ not to have those he may save.
Nor was this the only such incident involving children. Just a little earlier in Matthew 18:2-5 we read,
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.
We see here that the little child, and it is a little one again, is considered already humble, and that the way in which we respond to such a child is a measure of the manner in which we respond to and receive Christ. The little child is already fit to receive and enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is we who have become stained by our own sins who have to learn again what it means to be a child.
A few other instances provide some Scriptural background. In Acts 16, we read about the conversion of the Jailer in Phillipi. We read,
Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
Of course this does not prove infant baptism took place on this occasion, and we have already indicated that the idea that we should only ever do what is instructed in the New Testament is a false one. The Church existed before the words in St Matthew’s Gospel were written down, and before they were widely available. The Church did not wait to receive the New Testament to decide how it should act. It was already led by the Apostles and their disciples in the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the New Testament is the fruit of this divine activity, not the cause of it.
St John Chrysostom preaches about this passage and says,
Instead, right away he says, ―What must I do to be saved? And what does Paul answer? ―Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,‖ he says, ―you and your household. This especially draws men, that their household too will be saved.
The idea that children are to be left to wait until they are older to make up their own mind on some matter is a modern one that the earliest Christians would not have accepted. And even today we generally do not wait for a child to decide it wants to get dressed or go to school or clean its teeth. When we allow a child to make all of these necessary decisions for itself it usually grows up with many personal and psychological difficulties. It has made no sense to most Christians through the ages to leave the children of Christians to be outside the Church until they decide for themselves what they want to believe. On the contrary, just as parents will often say to their children, we are going on holiday to X or Y, without waiting for their approval if they are very young, so it was the case that parents would become Christians and bring their whole family and household into the Church.
Finally, during the sermon which St Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, we find that he says,
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
Again, we are not trying to find infant baptism clearly instructed in the New Testament, that is not a Christian way of handling the Bible. It merely submits the Bible to every persons own personal opinion. But we do find that the promise of salvation is offered to those who hear the words of St Peter and to their children. Those who listened to this sermon and were moved by it must surely have had their own children brought to mind by these words, and the good news that the promise included them as well.
These passages, and the longstanding practice of circumcision of infants, give us the context in which the earliest and Apostolic Church considered the baptism of infants. For many of the Fathers there was no pressing need to speak about infant baptism, or many of the other practices of the Church. But the place of children in the Church does appear, together with information about baptism. St Justin Martyr, (100-165 AD) Apology 1.15.6, writing to the Emperor in defence of the Christians, says,
Many, both men and women, have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, and have remained pure at the age of sixty or seventy years.
This certainly indicates that there were many in the Church, and known to St Justin Martyr, who had been Christians since their childhood. Speaking as he is about chastity, it would be reasonable to conclude that the childhood he points to is of an age before any temptation to such sin, and is therefore not a matter of youth but real childhood. These children are considered to have been disciples of Christ, just as they have remained disciples of Christ in their old age.
A little later, St Polycarp (69-156 AD), the bishop of Smyra and disciple of the Apostle John, was martyred during one of the waves of persecution which the early Church faced. His martyrdom is recorded in some detail, and we have the account of his trial before the magistrate where he says,
Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?
This would clearly suggest that from his earliest childhood, even his birth, St Polycarp had been a servant of God in some sense, and there being no other means of membership of the Church but baptism, it would seem likely, though not definite, that this is what he means.
A little later still, and St Irenaeus (130-202 AD), the disciple of St Polycarp, and bishop of Lyons, in direct succession of teaching and practice from the Apostles writes in Against the Heresies 2.22.4,
For He came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.
St Irenaeus has told us that he was careful to teach what he had heard from St Polycarp, just as St Polycarp taught what he had heard from the Apostle John. More than that, when writing against the heresies, the false teachings being introduced by some, the essence of his argument was that the Apostolic Church preserved in all places the teachings and practices which the Apostles had taught, and which were still taught by the bishops they had appointed in every place. Therefore, if he speaks of infants and children being born again, which must mean being baptised, then this is a practice he finds in all places and already with an antiquity so that it was not something newly introduced. Elsewhere in his writings he is often found pointing out exactly where a new teaching began and even gives the names of the persons who introduced it, to show that it was not Apostolic, but he does not criticise the practice of infant baptism, and seems to refer to it here as an expression of the salvation which is the gift of Christ by the incarnation.
About the same time, Tertullian (155-240 AD), an important figure in the Church of North Africa, but not a Father of the Church, writes,
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. For why is it necessary – if (baptism itself) is not so necessary – that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood?
Tertullian did not advise the baptism of infants, both because they were innocent of sin, and because those who sponsored them, and answered for them at baptism, could not be sure how they might turn out. This was, however, his own view, and some of his views were certainly coloured by his being legal background, and being influenced by, and then a member of, the Montanist movement, which came to be condemned. Nevertheless, we see from this passage that infants were being baptised at this time, (198 AD), and that Tertullian could not dismiss the practice as being a novelty. If it was not a novelty, then it had been practiced from before any time that Tertullian could discover, either in Rome, where he had become a Christian, or in Carthage, his native city where he returned and spent much of his life.
It was in Rome that Hippolytus (170-235 AD), wrote the Apostolic Tradition in about 214 AD, where he describes the practice of the Church as it has been received from the Apostles. He introduces his work, saying,
Now, driven by love towards all the saints, we have arrived at the essence of the tradition which is proper for the Churches. This is so that those who are well informed may keep the tradition which has lasted until now, according to the explanation we give of it, and so that others by taking note of it may be strengthened (against the fall or error which has recently occurred because of ignorance and ignorant people), with the Holy Spirit conferring perfect grace on those who have a correct faith, and so that they will know that those who are at the head of the Church must teach and guard all these things.
So he tells us that he is recording the essence of the tradition, and those things which the Churches should be doing, and that this tradition has been preserved till his time. These are not novelties, indeed he was very conservative and came into argument with others because of his determination to preserve what the Church had been taught. This is what the Church does and has always done, as far as he is able to discover. Writing about baptism he says,
And first baptise the small children. And each one who is able to speak for themselves, let them speak. But those not able to speak for themselves, let their parents or another one belonging to their family speak for them.
This seems clear, and follows the already traditional practice found in North Africa and reported by Tertullian. Small infants are to be baptised, and if they are so small that they cannot speak, then others in their family are to respond for them. This is not a novelty, it is not something recently introduced, Hippolytus rejects all such novelties. It is something which has been practiced as long as anyone can remember. He was already a priest in Rome in 199 AD, and therefore would have had ample opportunity to discover if infant baptism had been an innovation in Rome over the 60 or 70 years preceding that date. But he found the contrary, and therefore write about infant baptism as a practice of Apostolic origin.
Then we consider Origen (185-254 AD), a famous Christian though not without some controversy associated with him. What is important in this post is not so much his own ideas, as the practice which he records in his own time. We find him writing in his Homilies on Luke,
Christian brethren often ask a question. The passage from Scripture read today encourages me to treat it again. Little children are baptised for the remission of sins. Whose sins are they? When did they sin?…
The issue is not his answer to the question of why infants are baptised, which will be the subject of other posts. But that infant baptism is clearly established as a routine practice in his own time. Elsewhere he adds further witness to the practice of infant baptism, saying,
Baptism according to the practice of the Church is given even to infants…
The Church had a tradition from the Apostles to give baptism even to infants….
It seems clear that infant baptism was practiced without controversy in the experience of Origen. And at the same time we have testimony to it being practiced in Carthage, Rome and Gaul, Asia Minor and Egypt. Nowhere do we find it opposed or rejected as something recently introduced. It is everywhere traced back to the first decades of the second century at the latest, and to the Apostles and their disciples at the earliest, that is, there is evidence that it was indeed practiced in the first century, as soon as families were converted and brought their infant children to the Church to be made members of Christ.
One final testimony comes from the Council of bishops held in Carthage in 252 AD under the leadership of Cyprian (200-258 AD). A certain bishop Fidus had proposed that infants should not be baptised until the 8th day, in accordance with the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament. He felt that practically speaking it was repugnant to kiss the foot of a new born infant, part of the North African service of baptism. There was no question about the baptism of infants, but Fidus thought that it should be delayed to the 8th day. Nevertheless, the other bishops, though recognising that baptism was a spiritual circumcision, did not believe that there was any need for it to be delayed.
If no-one is held back from baptism and grace, how much less ought an infant to be held back… 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… For although the infant is still fresh from its birth, yet it is not such that any one should shudder at kissing it in giving grace and in making peace; since in the kiss of an infant every one of us ought for his very religion’s sake, to consider the still recent hands of God themselves, which in some sort we are kissing, in the man lately formed and freshly born, when we are embracing that which God has made…
This interesting passage represents the judgement of Cyprian and the 60 bishops who had gathered with him. We see that the bishops considered that Scripture itself justified their practice of infant baptism. These early Christian leaders had no evidence that infant baptism was something newly introduced, on the contrary it seemed to be based on the practice of the Apostolic Church of the generation or two before them. Nor did it seem to be only something practiced in Carthage, but in Rome, Gaul, Asia-Minor, Egypt and everywhere that these Christians had knowledge of. There was no reason for them to criticise the practice of infant baptism, it was the practice of the Church. The question here was whether an infant might be baptised in the first few days after birth, or should wait until the 8th.
What can we conclude? It is that in the first centuries the Apostolic Church reflected on the practice of circumcision, and the free gift of grace in salvation, with the unconditional welcome given to children by the Lord Jesus. They studied the Scriptures in the light of what they had received from the Apostles and their disciples, and found in them the practice they had received from the earliest Church. We cannot say that infant baptism is not Scriptural. The early Church insisted that it was. The question is whether or not we trust the early Church, those men and women who had been taught by the Apostles and followed their Tradition. Or whether we trust our own opinion more, even when it contradicts everything we learn from the early and Apostolic Church.
The early Church certainly practiced infant baptism. We have clear evidence. They believed it was both Scriptural and Apostolic. There is no evidence that it was a novelty, something newly introduced. Indeed even those who felt it best not to baptise infants could not provide any argument that it was not already the established and ancient practice in their times. It was the universal practice as far as we can see, and it continued to be the universal practice until the 16th century. Even with the Protestant revolution most Protestants continued to practice infant baptism, with only the Anabaptists rejecting it.
There are good Scriptural reasons for practicing infant baptism, but expecting the Bible to be a handbook for all Church practice is not what it was created for, and is itself just a very late opinion without Apostolic or early Church sanction. We practice infant baptism because the Church has always practiced infant baptism and in following the teachings of the Church, Scriptural and Apostolic, we are embracing authentic and original Christianity, not the personal opinions of those who read the Scripture apart from the reality of the Church that produced it.