Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

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Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church

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"Infant Baptism is not in the Bible"

First of all, it is. But we cannot even begin to show how until the huge assumption behind this statement is addressed head-on. The bible used in the Orthodox Church is not the same bible used in Protestant churches. The words are the same, and with the exception of some extra books (the so-called apocryphal books) the contents are the same. The difference is to be found in how we approach the bible, and this difference is far more profound than the classic ‘tradition vs sola scriptura’ debates between the Catholic and Protestants churches. The difference is in authorship.

The Orthodox Church approach the Bible as an author. Of course the Gospels and letters were written by individual Apostles, but they were not written in a vacuum. Consider first of all that the words of Christ were spoken in Aramaic but are recorded in Greek. This means that they were translated and anyone who knows more than one language also knows that translation requires interpretation. This translation was not only the function of the Apostles, but also the elders whom they appointed to care for and preach the Gospel to the communities they left behind. Consider also that the stories and sayings of the Lord were originally oral traditions, being told and re-told for over a hundred years, in some cases, before the written Gospels were owned by most of the churches. The Gospels as we have them were considered authoritative and approved for universal use within the church because they were authentically Apostolic. But there were other ‘gospels’ which the Church rejected, like the gospel of Thomas. All of this shows that the formation of the New Testament canon was a collective enterprise, a collective authorship, even if they were authored by an individual. What is more, the whole formation of the bible in the early church took place alongside the formation of Christian theology in general. This means that the church was deciding whether to accept the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Luke while answering questions like, Is Jesus divine in the manner the Father is divine, or is Christ fully human as well as fully divine? This Church made these decisions based upon the teaching of the Apostles, which was not only Scriptural but oral (1 Co. 11:2; 15:2; 2 Th. 2:15; 3:6; Tit 1:9; 1 Pe. 1:25) as well. The writings of the Apostles were certainly inspired, but so was everything they taught and established in the Church (2Th 2:15), and this is so because the Apostles were laying down the foundations of the Church according to the pattern and revelation of Jesus Christ, who both reveals and is revealed by the witness of the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. This is why the Orthodox approach the Bible the way they do, because it is a book which formed as part of the larger formation of the Church. An analogy might be that the Orthodox approach the Bible as someone might approach their journals --as documents which express the essence of their existence but do not exhaust it. Just as someone would read their journals as documents of their living history, so the Orthodox read the Scriptures as writings which embody and enshrine a formation which is ongoing. The difference, of course, is that the Scriptures bear the weight of apostolic authority, and not just because they were written by an apostle, an individual, but because they express the Apostolic mind, the mind of the whole Church, the body of Christ.

This approach is important to keep in mind because it will account for how we answer questions about the biblical authority for practices in the church. Very often, the Protestant approach to the Bible is very different. In my experience, many seem to approach it like a manual. When establishing a new church, one goes to the Bible and says, ‘what did the church look like in here? Were there elaborate ceremonies? No. Were there highly developed hierarchies? No. Were there multiple sacraments, like in the Catholic church? No.’ Ignoring the facts about Scriptural formation and its relationship with the Church’s formation, they will surmise that all these things are the ‘traditions of men’, belonging to a church which went immediately apostate following the death of the apostles and then easily dismiss them and the people who uphold such traditions. However, anyone reading my journals might be entertained, but if their intention is to become me, they will forever be frustrated. My journals might express my voice, my essence, my experiences, but they are not manuals possessing everything someone needs to know to clone me. How could they be? They were not written for this purpose, and even if they were, they could not possibly achieve this purpose. St Paul did not write his letters to the various churches and individuals with the intention of providing a comprehensive manual for someone in the 21st century to start a new church. As far as he was concerned the Church he was establishing would last forever, the gates of Hades (Matt 16:18) being unable to prevail against this pillar and bulwark of the truth (1Ti 3:15). He wrote his letters to address specific concerns within the churches he was founding, but in doing so he couldn’t help express the essence of the apostolic mind, the mind of Christ (1Cor. 2:16) which belongs to the whole and which he saw so perfectly and expressed so deeply.

Now if we insist on reading the Scriptures as a manual, excluding that which is not explicitly described in them, then we are forced to exclude such foreign doctrines as the Trinity, the two Natures of Christ, the unity of Christ’s person, and a great deal more Christianity which we all take for granted. Of course, many such people would also have to reject other aspects of their church life which have no specific reference in the bible, like an age of accountability, the baptism of believing children; the partaking of communion by women; the observance of the Christian Sabbath on Sunday as a day of rest; the recognition of Christmas and Easter as religious holidays; the use of musical instruments in New Testament worship; the church (corporation) owning property. And they would have to accept as having a specifically biblical precedent the baptism of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands; the charismatic/miraculous confirmation of the gift of the Holy Spirit; the immediate baptism of converts; the miraculous use of physical objects for healing (the handkerchief); speaking in tongues/other miraculous gifts; the use of (alcoholic) wine in communion; greeting each other with a kiss.

What I am trying to say is that the Scriptures reveal the mind of the Apostles and the Church they founded, and anything that the Church does or says as the Church must be totally harmonious with that mind; it does not have to have an explicit reference. The Church often invokes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and this does have an explicit reference in Matthew 24:28, but what the Church means when it invokes this formula is nowhere explicitly stated; it is, however, everywhere implied in the Scriptures.

So where is infant baptism in the bible? While there is no description of an individual infant being baptized, we have the description of household baptisms, five of them in fact:

  1. • The Household of Cornelius: Acts 11:14 and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household. '
  2. • The Household of Lydia: Acts 16:15 And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
  3.  • The Philippian Jailor's Household: Acts 16:33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.
  4. • The Household of Crispus: Acts 18:8 And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.
  5. • The Household of Stephanas: I Corinthians 1:16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.

Some have argued that while it may say ‘household’ it does not have to include children or infants – in other words, maybe those households did not include children. While this may be the case, it is hard to imagine they or at least one of the households did not include children. Besides, given the fact that we have five explicit references to a whole household being baptized (four in Acts alone) in the New Testament, we have to assume that many, many more such households were baptized, and surely some of them included children. Also, there exists no distinction in household baptism between adults and children. This is significant since had there been any distinction in apostolic practice, this would surely have been retained within the larger church practice for centuries to come and would have caused much more debate about baptizing children than occurred. In fact, with a few exceptions, notably Turtullian, we have no such discussion. What is more, no such distinction is remotely traceable in any of Paul’s comments about children or households in his letters (cf 1Cor. 7:14). It is clear anyway that the word ‘household’ for any Israelite of the day included everybody in the household, children included (cf…). No doubt it also included the slaves, which would have been the real shocker for the early Jewish Christians, since slaves had no status at all. One would just as soon have expected to be required to baptize the dog or the kitchen table. Nevertheless, had Luke or Paul wished to distinguish people of specific status or age in the household, would they not have chosen a different, less inclusive term?

Whether or not we still want to insist that a child or two would likely be found in the baptized households of the New Testament, we must remember that a household always included children throughout the Scriptures. The Jewish mind simply would not have made the distinction. Every time God established or spoke about His covenant with the House of Israel, it included the whole of Israel, men, women and children. His judgment (and His promise) in the garden powerfully and prophetically included the children to come (Gen 3:14ff); Noah’s whole ‘household’ was taken into the ark with him (Gen. 7:1); Abraham had his whole household circumcised (Gen. 17:23ff), and specifically his son, Isaac, when he was eight days old (Gen. 21:4); the whole household of every family was taken out of Egypt, and God’s institution of the Passover, specifically included the children (Ex. 12:26); Isaiah (…); Jeremiah (…). If it were truly an apostolic teaching that children were to be excluded from full inclusion in the covenant, this would have been an innovation which would have shaken the foundations of the Jewish / Christian covenant not only because it would have been so utterly alien to the Jewish mind, but because it would not have fit the prophetic covenants which preceded the fulfilled covenant enacted through Christ. To me, this is the real point here. The pattern of the Old Testament covenants formed the framework for the Apostolic understanding of the true covenant of Christ, and those covenants included children. They were covenants which were made with a nation, in which the whole household participated, and this is what is expressed in the household baptisms of the New Testament. Even when an individual was baptized, this baptism placed him in the whole household of God, so that he belonged to a larger body. In other words, individual adult baptisms occurred, of course, and were the norm of the time, but there were no individual covenants. When we receive the great commission in Matthew (28:19), we are told to make disciples of all nations, not individuals. A nation is made up of individuals, but we are not just called to baptize these nations of individuals, but to make disciples of them. The point is that we are told make disciples, to teach and instruct the nations, or to put it another way, the households of the world. Even where we would expect the Lord to specify individuals, he pluralizes His command.

However, even if no specific description of an apostle baptizing infants exists (that is if we want to exclude, on narrow pedantic grounds, descriptions of the household baptisms), we do have the specific reference to the circumcision of infants. This is less circumstantial than it seems. Whatever baptism means, it certainly took over and fulfilled the Jewish rite of circumcision, just like it took over and fulfilled every Jewish initiation rite. Baptism in Christ absorbed all initiation and cleansing rites of the day, the result being that circumcision, we know from the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:5ff; cf. Acts 21:21), was no longer necessary for the Gentile convert or his children. Circumcision was the ritual entrance into covenant between God and the household of Israel. Every male child who ‘opened his mother’s womb’ was circumcised on the eighth day after birth (as Isaac was, Gen 21:4). With his circumcision, the child was a full and complete member of the covenant. This was evident in the fact that the child could eat of the Passover sacrifice. Baptism absorbs this rite and as a result we are immersed in water three times and emerge as full members of God’s New Covenant with the new Israel. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments is it hinted that while absorbing the rite of circumcision, baptism would suddenly and without precedent exclude children. Jesus at any rate clearly did not have a problem with children gaining full inclusion to the covenant; He Himself was circumcised as an infant (Luk. 2:21), like John the Forerunner (Luk. 1:59).

Here we need to introduce a statement by Jesus Himself on the subject of children and faith, one which is common enough that we overlook its profound implications. In Matthew 19, some children are brought to Him to receive a blessing. His disciples try to prevent this, evidently even rebuking those who tried. But Jesus immediately rebukes His disciples in return, saying, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these” (14). A sentimental reading of this passage tells us that Jesus loves children, and that we should not stop them from trying to ask questions about Him or wanting to pray to Him, or tell them that they are too young to get to know Him. While this is true, no one the Lord is talking to thought differently. These were people, we have to remember, who circumcised their children, included them in the Passover rituals, and taught them from a young age about God, Israel and the Prophetic writings. The Jews were fanatical, by our modern standards, in their desire to raise their children in the faith.

This is not a Hallmark moment in the Gospels. Jesus is in fact doing two things here. He is including children in His Kingdom and telling us that if we want to be included, we have to be like them too (made explicit in Luke’s record of this event – 18:17). For Jesus to include children in the Kingdom, is to include them in the covenant which He will establish (and had established when Matthew, Mark, and Luke described this event) in His Name. There is no partial involvement in the Kingdom of Heaven, just as there is no partial inclusion in the covenant. We are either members or not. Jesus is saying that children are in, and there is to be no argument about it. In fact, He is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven even belongs to these children, a powerful statement. There is absolutely no room here to make an argument that children must wait until some magical age before they too can be included with full rights into the church and at the altar table. After all, Jesus was an infant Himself, and a child. Are we willing to say that Jesus was, at any point, NOT a full member of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel? Jesus was never separate from God, even in His Mother’s womb. If He truly recapitulates all things in Himself, if He truly united God and Man beginning from the moment of His conception, then children are drawn into this relationship too. It has always struck me that those who deny infant baptism, in addition to individualizing the covenant along the narrow lines of a reason-only faith, take up the cause of the Nestorians, who claimed that Jesus’ divinity only descended upon Him at baptism.

The Orthodox claim has always been that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such children, not only because the covenant is with the whole household, not only because a distinction of age was never introduced into the practice of baptism, not only because such a distinction simply would not have matched the Old Testament covenants which served as the prophetic model for the New Covenant, but because Christ Himself became incarnate as a child, an infant, and in Him all ages, like all humanity, like the whole creation, are sewn into the perfect union expressed in the eucharistic supper of the New Israel, access to which we have only through baptism. In this way, Christ makes infanthood and adulthood alike fully capable of expressing and participating in the Kingdom of Heaven. What is more, Christ, as the eternally begotten Son of God, includes in a special way the children begotten of earthly fathers.

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