The Orthodox Church holds a rather unique view when it comes to baptism at which many other Christian communities raise an eyebrow: the baptism of infants. We believe all children born of Orthodox parents should be baptized as infants, be Chrismated (receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit), and receive Holy Communion…all as babies. Why do we believe this? Because infant baptism has been part of Holy Tradition for nearly 2,000 years, and because it is Biblical.
Is infant baptism in the New Testament?
Put simply: yes. It is. While the Bible does not exclusively describe the baptism of an individual infant, it does describe the baptisms of five households in the New Testament:
- Cornelius’ Household, Acts 11:13–14
- Lydia’s Household, Acts 16:15
- The Philippian Jailer’s Household, Acts 16:33
- Crispus; Household, Acts 18:8
- Stephanas’ Household, 1 Corinthians 1:16
Some may argue that “household” does not imply the inclusion of children. And this is a valid position to hold. However, we must remember that the Bible does not contain everything about the Christian life or the experience of the early Church. And we must also take into account that the inclusion of five household baptisms is a clear indication that such a thing was common. Moreover, this leads to the conclusion that many, many more baptisms occurred that were not recorded in Scripture. Surely some of these included young children and infants.
The Household in the Old Testament
By studying the Old Testament (OT), we find further evidence that the word “household” included children and infants. The OT covenants served as a 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 every household (men, women, and children) participated:
- Noah’s whole “household” went into the ark with him (Genesis 7:1)
- Abraham had his entire household circumcised (Genesis 17:23)
- Isaac was circumcised when he was eight days old (Genesis 21:4)
- The household of every family was taken out of Egypt, and God’s institution of the Passover specifically included the children (Exodus 12:24–28)
The fulfillment of circumcision
Did you notice we put Isaac’s circumcision in bold text earlier? We did this because the biblical example of circumcision of infants serves as the prototype for their baptism. In other words, just as circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, so now baptism is the sign of the New Covenant.
Under the Old Covenant, every male child became a full and complete member of the covenant after his circumcision on the eighth day after birth. He could even eat of the Passover sacrifice. Baptism in Christ absorbed and fulfilled this rite, as we know from the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:5; Acts 21:21). Nowhere in the Bible does it express that despite absorbing the rite of circumcision, baptism would suddenly and without precedent exclude children. Jesus did not have a problem with children gaining full inclusion to the covenant: He Himself was circumcised as an infant (Luke 2:21), like John the Forerunner (Luke 1:59).
Children are part of the Kingdom
Thus, Jesus includes children in His Kingdom and in the covenant He establishes in His Name. There is no partial involvement in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are either members or not. To argue 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, goes directly against Christ when He says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
Keep in mind: Jesus was once an infant Himself. He became incarnate as an infant, and He was never separate from God, even in His mother’s womb. In our Lord all of humanity comes into the perfect union expressed in the Eucharist, which we partake of only through baptism. Christ makes both childhood and adulthood fully capable of expressing and participating in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Patristic support for infant baptism
In addition to the biblical evidence in favor of infant baptism, many writings from the Fathers of the Church also express the reality of this practice in the early Church:
- St. Justin Martyr tells of “many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood.”
- St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote of “all who are born again in God, the infants, and the small children . . . and the mature.”
- Pliny the Younger describes with amazement that children belong to the Christian cult (he was not a fan of Christianity!) in just the same way as the adults.
- St. Hippolytus of Rome insisted “first you should baptize the little ones.”
Many of the greatest Fathers of the third and fourth centuries did not receive baptism until adulthood, mostly for political reasons, despite having Christian parents. Many of these Fathers later insisted in their teachings that families baptize their newborn children, notably St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Cyril of Alexandria.
Let’s wrap all of this up. We see much evidence from the New Testament that infant baptism was a practice in the early Church. In addition, we also have the OT and its rite of circumcision being fulfilled by the rite of baptism. Finally, we have the writings of Church Fathers that testify of the practice of household and infant baptisms. We see then, that infant baptism is indeed biblical, and that it has been part of the Church’s Holy Tradition since the very beginning.
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