The Case for Infant Baptism

Christian baptism is about conversion, as a quick look at the Orthodox liturgical texts reveals. Questions are addressed to the candidate, requiring him or her to renounce Satan, and to seal this renunciation by spitting upon him. Next questions are addressed to the candidate, requiring a statement of union with Christ, which the candidate utters and then seals by bowing down in prostration to Christ, and by confessing the Nicene Faith. Clearly, the baptism of such adult converts is the historic norm, and no one disputes this.

The question is: can this rite of conversion also be applied to infants and those too young to answer for themselves? Is it allowable for sponsors to make the required responses on the little one’s behalf? For the Christian Church not only grows by making converts, but also by those converts having babies. After the baby is born, what is to be done with the wee one? If the New Testament texts talking about the baptism of babies are few, there are even fewer texts talking about the dedication of those babies—in fact there are none. And since the New Testament is not a rule book governing every aspect of the Church’s life (like a set of Ikea assembly instructions), such an absence of direction about what to do with babies is hardly surprising.

Obviously, the Orthodox Church baptizes babies, regarding such an exception to the rule of convert baptism as apostolic. Some people disagree (usually those people who do indeed regard the New Testament as a kind of rule book), and they often denounce the practice of infant baptism as “Constantinian,” which term they use as a kind of Anabaptist swear word. Admittedly, many things began to change with the advent of the first Christian emperor, but the practice of baptism was not among them. And when you think about it, why should it have been? What Constantine did was simply to call off the persecution, make it clear that he favoured the Christians, and let them practice their faith freely.

Given this new freedom, why would those Christians make substantive changes in their faith? If they kept that faith even to martyrdom and death before Constantine, why would they change it after he allowed them to practice it freely? Anyway, it will be helpful to look at the surviving historical record to see whether or not Christians baptized infants prior to the Peace of Constantine. We leave to one side for now a discussion of the New Testament texts about the baptism of households (Acts 11:14, 16:31) since people dispute whether the Jewish practice of the proselyte baptism of households (which included babies) has any relevance here.

The first voice we encounter in the record of history is that of Tertullian (d. 220), the feisty North African lawyer and apologist. He denounced the practice, and was distinctly unimpressed when people defended it by citing the text “Let the children come to Me” (Matthew 19:14). “‘Let them come,’ he retorted, “while they are growing up, while they are learning, while they are instructed why they are coming. Let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ” (On Baptism, chapter 18). Anabaptists tend to like Tertullian, but what is not often appreciated is that this text is evidence for the practice of infant baptism in North Africa in the late second century, not evidence against it. For why would Tertullian inveigh so passionately against something that no one ever did? The North African Christians allowed the baptism of infants, and Tertullian argued that they should not.

Next we look at the witness of Origen, the Church’s first (and controversial) systematic theologian, who flourished in Alexandria and Palestine and who died in 254. He clearly knew of infant baptism, and approved of it. In one of his sermons on Luke’s Gospel, he says that “Little children are baptized ‘for the remission of sins’…Yet how can this explanation of the baptismal washing be maintained in the case of small children, except according to the interpretation we spoke of earlier? ‘No man is clean of stain, not even if his life upon the earth had lasted but a single day’…For this reason, even small children are baptized.” We may or may not agree with Origen about the rationale for baptizing infants, but there is no doubt that the Church of his day did indeed baptize them. And this practice was not recent in his day. Origen writes, “The church had a tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to infants” (in his Commentary on Romans). Whether or not the practice actually went back to the apostles (which I maintain it did), at very least it went back beyond living memory, and this places it very early indeed.

We may also look at the document known as The Apostolic Tradition, and ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235). Scholars now debate whether or not it was actually a liturgy used in Rome in that time, but at very least it represents the thought of its day. And this thought took for granted: 1. that most baptisms were of converts, and 2. that small children could also be baptized. The relevant bit from the document reads, “First baptize 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. Afterward baptize the grown men, and finally, the women” (Apostolic Tradition, chapter 21). Here we see that the small child’s inability to speak for itself was not a problem; the parents or sponsors simply gave the responses (just as in Orthodoxy today).

One more voice may be heard—that of St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258). A fellow bishop named Fidus knew that infants were baptized, but thought that the baptism should be deferred until the eighth day of the infant’s life on analogy with Jewish circumcision, perhaps because St. Paul called baptism “the circumcision of Christ” in Colossians 2:11. Cyprian met with sixty-six of his fellow North African bishops in council and considered Fidus’ suggestion of waiting until the eighth day to baptize infants. Cyprian and the council unanimously rejected the suggestion, and said that the infant should be baptized immediately after birth, on the second or third day. This indicates a well-established practice in North Africa—so well established, in fact, that the only debate was whether to baptize the baby right after birth or to wait for eight days. No one there supposed that infants could not be baptized at all.

This quick survey of church history reveals that for whatever varied reasons it was allowed, the Church did indeed allow babies to be baptized even before Constantine gave us a break. One can still debate the wisdom of the practice if one wishes, but of its historical pedigree there can be no doubt.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+


Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979 before serving Anglican parishes in central Canada. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and spent two years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the O.C.A., St. Herman of Alaska Church.

The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C., where they worship each Sunday. The community has planted a number of ‘daughter churches’, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, published by Conciliar Press, including the Bible Study Companion Series, with verse-by-verse commentaries on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, the Early Epistles, the Prison Epistles, the Pastoral Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, as well as a volume about how to read the Old Testament , entitled The Christian Old Testament. He has also written a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, entitled, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. SVS Press has published his book on Feminism and Tradition, examining such topics as the ordination of women and deaconesses. He has also written a synaxarion (lives of Saints), published by Light and Life, entitled A Daily Calendar of Saints, recently updated and revised and available through his blog. He has also written a series of Akathists, published by Alexander Press, including Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness, Akathist to the Most-Holy Theotokos, Daughter of Zion, A New Akathist to St. Herman of Alaska, Akathist: Glory to the God who Works Wonders (a rehearsal of the works of God from Genesis to Revelation). His articles have appeared in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger (the official diocesan publication of the Archdiocese of Canada), as well as in the Orthodox Church (the official publication of the O.C.A.), in The Handmaiden and AGAIN magazine (from Conciliar Press).

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at the local Regent College, Vancouver. He can also be found on his personal blog, Straight from the Heart.

Fr. Lawrence lives in Surrey with his wife, Donna. They have two daughters, and three grandchildren.


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