How is infant baptism scriptural?
The sign and seal of membership in God's community of faith in the Old Covenant was circumcision. A male child received circumcision on the eighth day of his life, according to the commandment of God Himself (Lev. 12:3; Lk. 1:59; Acts 7:8; Phil. 3:5). In the New Testament the Apostle Paul refers to baptism as "the circumcision made without hands: "In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12).
Just as infants were brought into the covenant of God through the community of Israel, in the New Covenant infants are also regenerated (born again) through baptism and made members of the "Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:26)," God's kingdom, through the Church.
The Lord Himself rebuked those who would keep children from coming into union with Him, being blessed by His grace and truth: "But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:14). The word translated here as "children" is the Greek word for "infants." He even equates the faith of children with what all Christians should aspire to: "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).
In the Book of Acts we have a number of references to "whole households" being baptized, including that of Cornelius (Acts 10). At that time, this would include adults and children of both family and servants. (Acts 11:13-14; 16:15; 18:8). The Apostle also personally baptized the "household of Stephanas" (1 Cor. 1:16).
Although there is no explicit mention of infant baptism in the Scriptures, it is implied both from the Old and New Testament and was the practice of the early Church. Notable mentions of infant or child baptism include the following:
St. Polycarp, when being questioned by the Roman authorities regarding his faith in Jesus, remarks that he had served Christ for 86 years, suggestion he was baptized as an infant. St. Justin the Martyr (born AD 100) writes about "many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood." St. Irenaeus of Lyon (born AD 130), writes about "all who are born again in God, the infants, and the small children...and the mature." St. Hippolytus of Rome (born AD 170), commands that "first you should baptize the little ones...."*
It should be noted that two of the most respected Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, insisted on infant baptism. Its rejection only appeared with followers of Ulrich Zwingli and then more especially when the Baptist Church was founded in the 16th century.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why does the Orthodox Church baptize Infants?
The Orthodox Church baptizes infants so that they may participate in the life of grace of the kingdom of God in the Church. As our infants and children participate in the life of our families, although they cannot express intellectually the importance and nuances of family life, so do Christ's "little ones" participate fully in the "household of God" (Eph. 2:19).
It is a false assumption that one must "understand" the things of God intellectually (who among us does?) in order to be brought into the community of faith. Such an approach only really appeared in the West during the "age of reason," under the influence of humanism and the exaltation of human reason. Using this logic, a mentally challenged adult would never be eligible for baptism.
The current practice among Roman Catholics and most Protestants of delaying the reception of Communion to infants and younger children only appeared late in the history of Christendom, under the influence of certain philosophical trends.
All of human experience--including infancy and childhood--were sanctified by our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Irenaeus of Lyon makes this point in the early 3rd century. While a child is not fully formed intellectually, he is fully capable of receiving divine grace and truth in the deep place of the heart, where God speaks to each person. This seed of grace must certainly grow as the child develops, as it must grow in all of us. Admittedly, there is a risk that the child will reject his faith when he reaches adulthood. However, this danger exists regardless, and perhaps more so if he is unable to be born again unto eternal life and thus experience the grace of God at the beginning of life.
The Orthodox Church, following the ancient practice, baptizes, confirms (anoints with "chrism"), and extends Holy Communion to a new Christian, regardless of age. Infants and children are full members of the Church, as they were full members of the people of Israel, and as God's "strength is made perfect in weaknesses" (2 Cor. 12:9).
The West (after its separation from the Orthodox) approaches the Christian faith and the Church in a very individualistic way, it is "me and Jesus." However, from the earliest times this was not so, nor was it so in Judaism. Rather God was experienced within community, and the community informed and supported the faith of each member.
As mentioned above, the West also tends to approach faith in an overly intellectual way. It is all about ideas and reasoning. Especially in Protestantism, the emphasis is on "learning" and (intellectual) "knowledge." he Orthodox Church is home to some of the greatest intellects in human history. However, Orthodox Christianity is more pointedly about prayer and encountering God. Only then does the intellect tries to grasp this experience. As the early Christian saying goes, "The theologian is the one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian." As an example, Moses did not fully comprehend with his reasoning power what he encountered in the burning bush; He did not understand the depths of what it means that God is "I Am that I Am;" yet this experience of God continually informed and formed him in a much deeper way than can mere reasoning power.
Thus the Orthodox Church has always baptized infants, bringing them into the communion of faith and allowing them to encounter the God of love from the beginning of their lives. We are "saved by grace" not through our knowledge.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why does an infant need baptism if no sin has yet been commited?
It is true, an infant has no personal sin and is personally innocent. And although it is better that the infant be baptized into Christ, the Orthodox Church holds that an infant who dies without baptism will by God's mercy be with the Lord.
However, all who are born into this fallen world bare the consequences (not the "guilt") of Adam's sin, which means primarily corruption--sickness, suffering, and, the ultimate form of corruption, death.
Along with mortality comes a disordered and fallen humanity infected by the mystery of sin in need of regeneration and the saving grace of Christ. In AD 252 a regional Church Council,* chaired by St. Cyprian of Carthage, answered the question of why infants, who have not committed sin, are baptized:
"On account of this rule of faith [i.e. the Church's teaching on ancestral sin] even infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what is in them as a result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration."
The Orthodox Church, differing from the Roman Church, does not teach that we are born with the "guilt" of Adam and are therefore condemned to hell, while having committed no sins. Rather, as the early Church taught, the Orthodox teach that man is born with the "disease" of a fallen and disordered human nature, which ruptures our original communion with God, and thus results in corruption and death.
Through the rebirth of baptism, this disorder is overcome, a man is joined to Christ's resurrected and glorified Humanity, and he becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit.
* The decisions of this regional Council of Carthage were accepted by the Sixth Universal (Ecumenical) Council in AD 680/681.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why is an infant baptized who is in fact too young to answer for themselves?
Remember the paralytic who was brought to Christ by his four friends? What does the Scripture say? "When He [Christ] saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” (Matt. 9:2). It was not merely the paralytic's faith (we are not even told if he had faith), but the incredible faith of his friends who were inspired to drop him into the house through the roof, who made the impression on the Lord.
An infant that is baptized is raised in the way of the Lord by his parents, and is particularly looked after spiritually by his "God parents." We are not isolated members of Christ, but His Body and His family. As St. Hippolytus answers this question, "but for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to the family."*
* Quotes taken from "Infant Baptism: What the Church Believes, Fr. John Hainsworth, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2005.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour