Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

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Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church

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Some Background

Controversy about infant baptism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Polycarp (168 AD) described himself as having been in devoted service to Christ for eighty-six years in a manner that would clearly indicate a childhood baptism. Pliny (c. 112) also describes with amazement that children belong to the Christian cult in just the same way as do the adults. Justin Martyr, early in the second century, tells of the “many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood.” Another early authority, Irenaeus of Lyon, wrote about "all who are born again in God, the infants, and the small children... and the mature.” Then there is Hipploytus, the author of the Apostolic Tradition in about 215 ad, who 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 audible dissension to the practice comes from Tertullian in the third century, who objected to the practice of baptizing infants, based on the heresy that sin after baptism was nearly unforgivable. Yet his dissension reveals an already universal and ancient practice and should be understood within the larger North African debates of his day which centered around perceived laxity in church morals and government. We witness as well that 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 Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus. However, like Tertullian’s objections, the later baptism of these men represents a larger crisis in the newly legalized church under Constantine. Holding off baptism meant holding off post-baptismal sin. Such postponement may have also become popular through the desire of older pre-Constantinian Christians to counter-act the new wave of baptisms of pagans wishing to belong to the faith of their emperor, which even if not a requirement of Roman loyalty or citizenship as yet, did certainly promise favour and made sure 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 which baptism served as the initiation; it had nothing to do with the validity of a child’s baptism. This is made obvious by the fact many of those fathers whose baptism was postponed insisted later on that families baptize their new born children, notably Chrysostom, Ambrose and Cyril of Alexandria.

We might also think that the Protestant churches uniformly rejected infant baptism, but this not the case. The Westminster Confession (chapter 28), Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 72-74), The Genevan Confession of Faith (1536) The French Confession of Faith (Calvin, 1559), The Belgiac Confession (1561, Revised at Synod of Dort, 1618-1619), and other Reformational confessions insisted on infant baptism as the norm. Both Luther and John Calvin insisted on the practice. It was with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), of the Swiss Reformed Church, that we have the first serious objections. Several of Zwingli’s students illegally re-baptized themselves and proclaimed that they did so because their infant baptisms were invalid since it was not accompanied by a profession of faith. This ignited a debate in the early Reformed Churches, and some of Zwinlgi’s followers even became known as Anabaptists because of their stand. Later, John Smyth (1570–1612), a former Anglican minister who became a Puritan, became influenced by the Anabaptists and formed his own group. They re-baptized themselves as well and the Baptist Church was born. In 1644, the Calvinist Particular Baptists made it clear where they stood on the issue, the issue which in many ways defined them as a group within the larger Puritan and Pilgrim movements of 17th century England. “Baptism,” they wrote, “is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispersed only upon persons professing faith. The way and manner of dispensing this Ordinance the Scripture holds to be dipping or plunging the whole body under water (The London Confession).” The Baptists continued to grow and evolve, and number many millions today, with the issue of infant baptism (and full immersion) still among their foremost doctrines. The Anabatists as well, continued to evolve, becoming better known today as Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites.

The arguments of these early reformers were very much inspired by the times and places they were living within. First of all, the Anabaptists and Baptists alike were locked in a struggle with the secular authorities of their day, some of whom, at least in Zwingli’s case, used infant baptism as a tax registration. We live today in a totally different context, and, in some ways, approaching these arguments as an Orthodox Christian is to introduce a perspective which our apples to their oranges. It can not been our intention to convince a Baptist to start baptizing their children. If one does not have a full sacramental life, a yearly festal cycle, a responsibility to uphold a two thousand year unbroken communion, an apostolic approach to the Scriptures, an accountability to the Church Fathers, not to mention a classical Orthodox understanding of baptism itself, there is no reason at all to abandon their Anabaptist traditions. It would not make sense, theologically or logistically, in their church life to do so. We can only summarize our answers to the issues still being raised today. There are few practices which challenge our assumptions about the faith in general more than this one. It is wise therefore to remember that Protestant objections to baptizing children do not emerge from a vacuum-sealed objective reading of the Scriptures, and it is just as wise to remember that such objections arise from assumptions (indeed, Traditions) which are of recent origin and should not be retroactively applied to the Scriptures nor to the Church which arose within and around them.

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