I have received a number of questions recently about the practice of infant baptism versus reserving baptism for adulthood, when the individual chooses it for his or herself. I’ve decided to take it as a sign from the Holy Spirit to offer an explanation of the Church’s teaching on infant baptism on a larger scale.
Of course, you probably know that individuals can, and often do, receive baptism as babies. However, there are other Christian churches that teach that baptism should be reserved for teenagers or adults who are asking for Jesus to come into their lives. We must first have a proper understanding of what baptism does for us before we can understand why we should baptize babies. Jesus tells us in His own words that baptism is necessary for salvation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). He also instructed the Apostles to baptize people as part of their missionary work: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
In receiving baptism, we receive the gift of God’s grace, which eliminates the void left in our souls by original sin handed down to us from our first parents, Adam and Eve. It is not a symbolic act where we announce to God that we are ready to follow Him, but an act of God: purifying us, making us His adopted sons and daughters. When we think of it as a choice, a gesture, or a favor that we are doing for God, rather than a gift He is giving us, we risk falling into the sin of pride, making it more about us than God’s gratuitous and salvific work. When reading through the Scriptures about the necessity and effects of baptism, we have to assume it is what He desires for ALL people, not just people of a certain, arbitrary age. We should also recall here some other words of Jesus, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
The Church also recognizes other Scripture passages to imply that baptizing infants is what should be done. For example, in the Book of Acts, chapter 10, a Gentile by the name of Cornelius converts to Christianity. In those days, it was customary for the entire family and household to convert when the head of the household did. Therefore, we see Cornelius and his entire family being baptized. There is no reason to assume that children were not part of that household. Secondly, there is a precedent for setting children apart for God in the Old Testament. The symbol of the Old Covenant was circumcision, which happened when the baby boy was eight days old. If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, then infant baptism would be the fulfillment of the Old Covenant’s symbol of circumcision.
Now we move to what tradition shows us. Remember, the Protestant reformation did not take place until the 16th century. Until that point, Christianity was, more or less, unified on its teachings and practices. So, let’s take a look at what some of our very earliest Church Fathers taught about infant baptism:
As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born.
– Cyprian of Carthage (Letters 58:2 [A.D. 253])
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!
– Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388])
“Well enough” some will say, “for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?” Certainly, [I respond] if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated.
– Gregory of Naziazus
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.
– John Chrysostom (Baptismal Catecheses in
Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388])
What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond.
– Augustine (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31 [A.D. 400])
We can see through these few examples that it was common practice to baptize infants and children in the early Church so that they, too, might receive sanctifying grace from God. This is a beautiful gift that parents can give to their children, because they believe in God’s grace and want their children to be set apart and made part of His family. This week, meditate on the differences we encounter when we make choices for ourselves versus allowing God to do His work in us.