by Fr. John Hainsworth
On Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church. This excellent extended article will be presented in six installments.
Every night my family gathers around the dinner table. We pray, dish out the food, laugh, argue, and ask and answer questions. The scene is sometimes chaotic, sometimes serious, sometimes silly, but this scene defines our family. This table becomes the heart of our family. My girls, when they come to the table, come as full members of the family. They are not invited to the table but excluded from the food. They belong by right to the household, and therefore belong at the dinner table. This right is never questioned, their status never challenged. Do they understand the significance of belonging to the family? Do they appreciate the blessings inherent in membership? Of course not, at least not yet. Will they ever reject this family? Will they break the holy fellowship of that dinner table? Probably not, but even if I worry that they will, I cannot keep from them the family status which they have as a birthright. On the contrary, honoring that status, rejoicing and raising them in it, will do more to preserve them as valuable family members than waiting to offer this membership until I am sure they truly appreciate it.
Why start at the dinner table to talk about the practice of baptizing children in the Orthodox Church? Because the family table, and the family itself, are biblically ideal images for the church altar and the church family. We are born into an earthly family, and born again (John 3:3) into the heavenly family. We eat together at the dinner table, and we feast together at the altar. With God our Father, and the Church our Mother (Revelation 12:1), we gather as children of a holy family, each of us enjoying the full privileges of membership by a baptismal birthright. Do we fathom the many blessings we receive just by virtue of belonging to this family?
No, for to do so would be to fathom the depths of the riches of God. Does God still honor us, treat us as His children, still welcome us to His table, still call us His own? Always and forever. We may reject Him, rebel against Him, flee to a far off country. But if we return, we do not return as stewards of His Household, we return as His children, we return as prodigal members of His family. If we do not return, we know that God will never stop His vigil at the gates of our hearts, waiting for the return of His own.
Nevertheless, the ancient, apostolic and biblical practice of baptizing infants and children has been challenged by some in recent times. Let us look at the background and arguments of this debate before we turn to what it means for the Orthodox Church to baptize children.
Infant baptism was not controversial in the Church during the first two centuries after Christ.
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.”
The first recorded opposition to the practice comes from Tertullian in the third century. He objected to the practice of baptizing infants because of the heretical idea that sin after baptism was nearly unforgivable. His dissention should be understood within the larger debates of his day, centered around perceived laxity in church morals and government. Many of the greatest Fathers of the third and fourth centuries were not baptized until they were adults, despite having been born to Christian parents. Among them were St. Basil the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. The later baptism of these men reflects a larger crisis in the newly legalized Church under St. Constantine.
One reason postponing baptism became popular was the desire of some Christians to counteract the new wave of baptisms of pagans wishing only to belong to the faith of their emperor. While not yet a requirement of Roman loyalty or citizenship, baptism ensured that one was on the right side of Rome. Postponing baptism emphasized the significance of the rite, and was an attempt to preserve the genuineness of the life for which baptism served as the initiation. Postponement had nothing to do with the validity of a child’s baptism.
Many of those Fathers whose baptism was postponed insisted later on that families baptize their new born children, notably St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Cyril of Alexandria.
Controversy over infant baptism did not arise in its present form until after the Protestant Reformation. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted on the practice.
It was with Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), of the Swiss Reformed Church, that the first serious objections arose. Several of Zwingli’s students re-baptized themselves, proclaiming that they did so because their infant baptisms were invalid since they were not accompanied by professions of faith. This ignited a debate in the early Reformed churches, which was heavily influenced by social and political dimensions as well as theology. Soon after, former Anglican minister John Smyth (1570–1612) and his followers re-baptized themselves and the Baptist Church was born. The 1644 London Confession of the Calvinist Particular Baptists stated,
“Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispersed only upon persons professing faith.”
There are many million Baptists today, and this position on baptism is still among their foremost doctrines.
Protestant objections to baptizing children did not emerge from a vacuum-sealed objective reading of the Scriptures. Such objections arose from assumptions which were of recent origin and should not be retroactively applied to the Scriptures nor to the Church which arose within and around them.