ON THE KNEE OF THE LORD
Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church
By Fr John Hainsworth
Every night my family gathers around the dinner table. We pray, we dish out the food, we laugh and argue and ask and answer questions. The scene is sometimes chaotic, sometimes serious, sometimes silly, but whether openly acknowledged or not, this scene defines our family. This table becomes the heart of our family gathering, and in a real way reveals us as a family. My girls, when they come to the table, come as full members of the family. They are not invited to the table but excluded from the food. By simply being born into our household they, by right, belong to the household, and therefore belong at the dinner table. This right is never questioned, there status never challenged. Do they understand the significance of belonging to the family? Do they appreciate the blessings inherent in membership? Of course not, at least not yet. Will they ever reject this family? Will they break the holy fellowship of that dinner table? Probably not, but even if I worry that they will, I cannot keep from them the family status which they have as a birthright. On the contrary, honoring that status, rejoicing and raising them in it, will do more to preserve them as valuable family members than waiting to offer this membership until I am sure they truly appreciate their full status as a member of my family.
Why start at the dinner table to talk about the practice of baptizing children in the Orthodox Church? Well, in case it is not already obvious, the family table, and the family itself are biblically ideal images for the church altar and the church family. We are born into an earthly family, and born again (Jn 3:3) into the heavenly family; we eat together at the dinner table, and we feast together at the altar. With God our Father, the Church our Mother (Rev 12:1ff), we gather as children of a holy family, each of us enjoying the full privileges of membership by a baptismal birthright. Do we all fathom the significance of this membership? Do we even know how many blessings we could receive just for the asking by virtue of belonging to this family? We could not, for to do so would be to fathom the depths of the riches of God. Does God still honour us, treat us as His children, still welcome us to His table, still call us His own? Always and forever. We may reject Him, rebel against Him, flee to a far off country, but if we return, we do not return a steward of His Household, we return as His child, we return as a prodigal member of His family. If we do not return, we know that God will never stop His vigil at the gates of our hearts, waiting for the return of His own.
Nevertheless, the ancient, apostolic, and biblically Christian practice of baptizing infants and children in the Orthodox Church has been challenged by some in recent times and some background to this debate, as well the arguments, both popular and academic, need to be addressed, before we address what it means for the Orthodox to baptize children.
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 215ad, 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.
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.
“Children don’t understand the Faith they are baptized into”
Once again, the assumption behind this statement needs to be challenged because it is not one which existed in the early Church or in the centuries which followed. The assumption here is that faith is a product of reason. To truly believe, our minds must be capable and of age to understand why we believe, and even if we can’t fathom the depths of our baptism, we must at least be able to provide intellectual consent. For the adult convert to the Orthodox Church, this must be the case. Baptism is not magic; it is a voluntary act of submission to God, a consent to live in relationship with God within the covenant He has established through His Son with a larger body of baptized believers, the Church. In this sense, ‘believers’ baptism’ is a teaching of the Orthodox Church regarding adults. But when these baptized adults have children, the underlying assumptions of some evangelical Protestants are laid bare and seriously challenged. To state it plainly, a ‘me, my Reason, my Bible and my God only’ kind of faith which pushes believers-only baptism (ie. no kids allowed until they can accept the four spiritual laws) falls flat. This kind of faith falls flat because, first of all, it is so highly individualized. Never in biblical history has faith ever been so exclusive, so self-centered. Tertullian said famously that “one Christian is no Christian”. Our faith certainly must be personal. We must have a personal relationship with God. But it must not also be limited to that personal relationship. Our relationship with God is valid only if it is also realized in communion with the whole Church.
At the beginning I spoke about the church as family, and I want to return to that image. Children, as I said, belong to that family as individuals, but they cannot be said to belong to the family if they consider themselves outside the family’s fate. They are family members only in so much as they live as part of the family, accepting all the responsibilities and patience and self-sacrifice that such family status demands. But it is interesting that I do not have to explain this to my children. They understand from birth that they belong to a larger group, and belong in the most intimate way. They know who their father and mother are, they know too where to go for help and for security. The concept of ‘family’ is beyond them, but the reality of family life is not. In other words, children have a sense of belonging a dozen years or more before they understand what this belonging means.
As I have said, the earthly family is only an image of the heavenly family, the family of the Kingdom of God. Children born to a Christian family are born again into the heavenly family through baptism, the fulfilled birth, for which maternal birth is only an image. This means that a child baptized in the Orthodox Church belongs to a church family, which bridges both heaven and earth, which stretches both backward and forward in time, which comprises both saints and angels, and they belong to this family exactly in the manner that each of my children belong to my family. Children know very well that they belong in a vital way to this church family, and they know that the altar table is their table, that they can turn to the church for anointing when they are sick, for guidance when they are confused, for protection when they are frightened. All of this is known to them before they have some kind of cerebral understanding of that belonging.
Our modern world has exulted reason and cerebralism so high that young children are treated (not explicitly, but certainly implicitly) as not fully human, or, at least, less seriously as adults because they can’t think like we do. The truth is that a child is a full human being, by which I mean that a child of any age is capable, as I have said, of expressing and participating in the glory of God. This is so because Christ Himself sanctified every age as God bearing, since he was the perfect Word of God as an infant as much as when He was a grown man. We must remember that a child is not a second-class person and that their baptism is as significant to them and to God as an adult baptism, and that even if they do not cognitively understand what that baptism means, they are certainly capable of intuitively understanding it. We may argue that a cognitive consent should come first, but God created the family, and this is the way He created it.
What if a child leaves or rejects Christ later in life?
This is real concern, but not a reason to keep children from full membership in the New Covenant by denying them baptism and communion. We should rather accept them as the Lord commanded us to do, because to raise them up in the life in Christ, with all that that means, is to give them a much better chance of carrying this life beyond our parental guardianship. If someone has no intention of raising a child in Christ, by which I mean that if they have no intention of attending church regularly, praying as a family in the home daily, teaching the bible, encouraging questions about the faith and giving their children every opportunity to experience the life of the church, then they should in no way bring their child to be baptized. When we decide to baptize a child we make the most solemn of promises to God. We are promising to do everything in our power to bring that child to Christ, and this is a promise that we can only make if we are doing everything we can to draw near to Him our self. Children take seriously what we take seriously. If they grow up in a home in which Christ is part of normal conversation and prayer and bible reading and the lives of the saints are part of normal daily life, they will feed off this as much as the food we put on their plates at the dinner table. Children are deeply impressed by candle light and incense, by flowers at Pascha, by late-night processions in Holy Week, by palm leaves on Palm Sunday, by icons and by lake blessings at Theophany, by vestments and altar service. They are fascinated by all of this and they are drawn into Christ through all this. I can see, as a priest, just how real this all is to children when they approach the chalice to receive communion; it is in their eyes, and I am humbled. When they see that we are excited and involved, they become so too. Raising a child in Christ is easy, just be a child yourself in Christ, just take it seriously. In fact, children take faith very seriously, and we should honour that faith ourselves, or else we shouldn’t baptize them.
But what if they do leave Christ? What if we do all that we can do and they still walk away for whatever reason? Wouldn’t it have been better not to baptize them? Of course not. Would a responsible parent ever dream of keeping their child outside full family membership until they were sure that the child would ‘want’ to be in the family? As Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian and father of ten children himself, has put it:
Romans normally excluded children from the dinner table until the age of fifteen or sixteen, at which age boys received the toga virilis that marked their entrance to manhood. Family dinner as we know it was a Christian invention, not some "natural" form of family life. The family dinner is a reflection of the eucharistic meal, the meal that welcomed all members of Christ to the table. Opposition to communion of children is pagan and seeks to reverse the revolutionary table fellowship established by the Church. It is an attempt to return to Egypt. (Against Christianity, p. 93)
In other words, the family that eats together should receive communion together, the one an image of the other. But what if an adult should be baptized and then abandon the faith, do we worry as much about that as we do about our children? Children in fact have a much better start than adults do anyway. True, an adult may have accepted baptism from the deepest of experiences with Christ, they may have come to know Christ through the darkest of roads and so appreciate the light of Christ all the more. But a child, raised in the fullness of the faith and in a home full of others who are doing the same has the greatest of foundations, beside which an experience, however profound, simply can’t compare. Every human being is free to do God’s will or not; this is God’s doing not ours. His desire is for us to do His will, but even when He knows that we won’t, He still does not deny us food, clothing, shelter, even love, joy, long life, and children ourselves. Will we be so afraid of what our children might do that we deny them the one thing needful (Lk. 10:42) for all ages, not just for adults: communion in the Church, full membership in the life-giving covenant of Christ? Where is our faith? Where is our resolve? Where is our love for God and for our children? To whom is Christ speaking now, when He says, “do not hinder them from coming to me”?
Do you think that unbaptized children go to hell if they die?
We emphatically do not. The Orthodox do not believe that a child is born guilty of Adam’s sin, and unless freed of that guilt through baptism and communion will die without God’s mercy. Such a notion is pernicious both for its barbarism and for its distortion of God. Do we really think that God is so small that He is bound by our rites, the rites He has given us? God is sovereign, He will have mercy on whom He has mercy and judgment on whom He has judgment (Rom 9:15, see also v. 11).
We can talk about sin and guilt in three ways. There is primordial sin, the sin of Adam, and we understand this not in terms of inherited guilt, but in terms of a fallen world. Primordial sin introduced sickness, suffering, evil, and death into God’s perfect creation (1 Jn 5:19; Rom 5:12). We are born into Adam’s sin, in that we are born into a fallen world, but as yet we do not have to participate in it, we are not guilty yet.
There is generational sin, which we see in terms of specific propensities to sin. A child of alcoholics, for example, will inherit not the guilt of his parents but the tendencies to sin as they did, or other sins associated with his generational heritage. Again, we do not have to submit to this sinful heritage, we do not have to carry it on ourselves.
Finally, there is personal sin, the stuff we do ourselves, whether as perpetuation of the general falleness of this world, the generational fallenness of our parents or surroundings, or as the invention of ‘new’ sins of our own. A person becomes guilty when they personally sin. A child is not guilty until they make sin a personal decision, whether that is a conscious or unconscious decision. It is true that baptism is the washing away of sin, and one could say that it seems senseless to baptize a child if they have no inherited guilt to wash away. However, Christ’s sacrifice, which we are baptized into, was a sacrifice of His whole life as a submission to God – ‘not my will by your will be done’ (Lk 22:42) – and His death on the Cross not only washed away our sins, but also destroyed death itself. When we are baptized, as we shall discuss further on, we are baptized into His life and death (Rm 6:4), and we become co-beneficiaries of a life which finally brought God and Man into a union of love and a harmony of will. The infant is initiated into that union, which will include the forgiveness of their sins, especially as they participate in the body and blood given to all of us for the ‘remission of sins’, but is not limited to that forgiveness. The life and death of Christ, which reverses the primordial, generational, and personal falleness of this world, is what the child enters through baptism.
Baptism is just a sign
Admittedly, everything I have said assumes that Baptism is more than just an outward expression of an inward acceptance of Christ. Of course, baptism is an outward expression, in that physical hands are laid on a physical person, and that the rites of the baptism are tangible, visible, and physical. But remember just how seriously the Orthodox embrace the incarnation of Christ. For us, Christ’s body was not an outward expression merely. To be sure, we cannot remain at the level of Christ’s physical body, but we must remember that His body was not an incidental part of His saving Incarnation. His body was indivisibly part of His whole person. So important in fact is the body to God that having assumed a physical existence He raised it as well, and the Christian promise is that we will be raised with our bodies. Nothing then is just an outward sign of a more important inward reality. If we insist that baptism be an external formality, then baptizing children is not necessary.
In practice, however, even among those for whom it is just a sign, a child is often clearly excluded from the common rites of the larger body of baptized believers. The fear among some of baptism effecting a change in one’s status with God, of being more than a mere sign, seems inconsistent, as Peter Leithart has pointed out, with views held by most Christians about marriage. Few Christians of any stripe would say that a marriage ceremony is merely a ‘sign’. A change clearly occurs. They are separate before the ceremony, but they are ‘one flesh’ after. This is a profound change, one which is effected by God through the ceremony itself. Baptism is no different. The rite of baptism has always been understood as a baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, an entrance into the saving covenant, an enrollment in the Lamb’s book of life, a union with the whole people of God, and the giving of a new citizenship in the Kingdom not of this world. Clearly, this is more than just a formality.
So what happens to a child when they are baptized?
First of all they are baptized into a story. Christians are the people of a story. The Lord did not appear from nowhere with a message and language of His own invention. He came as the fulfillment of a promise made in the beginning to Abraham, in conformity to the prophecies concerning Him. The subsequent promises and prophecies, the peoples and the sins, the punishments and the mercies, these are our story, because it is the story of Christ, and it is the duty and joy of every Christian to know and teach this story. A child is baptized into that narrative, they become part of it. The stories of the patriarchs, of the judges, of the kings, of the prophets, of the forbearers of Christ, of the apostles, of the saints which followed them, and of course, of Christ Himself, are their stories. This is clear in Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites are commanded to tell through ritual re-enactment, the Passover Supper, the story of God’s glorious and nation-making act in Egypt. Children are commanded to be part of the ritual, and they are so because their birthright is this story. The same is true of the fulfilled Passover of Christ, when the Lord again commanded us to ‘remember’ what He accomplished for us on the Cross through the ritual remembrance in the Liturgy, specifically in the Anaphora of the Liturgy (se especially St Basil’s Anaphora). We tell the story of God and His people, because we are His people, and when we preach, as Peter did, as Stephen did, as Paul did, we preach our story. Our children are raised in this story, and by virtue of baptism this story is their birthright, it becomes their story.
Secondly, children are baptized into a people. From the beginning God’s covenant was made with a people, not with a person. The promise to Abraham was made to all nations, the covenant with Moses was made with the whole of Israel, and the New Covenant of Christ was made with the New Israel, the Church of God. We are a people called out of the nations, called out of the world, and through baptism we come to belong to a people who belong to God. We are made citizens of Heaven (Psalm). We embrace a heavenly ethnicity. My daughters, through baptism, belong to this people more than they belong to Canada, their country of birth. We have our Kingdom culture of daily prayer, regular fasting, festal cycles, biblical story telling, and we have oaths of allegiance in the form of the Creed, we have our national anthems in the hymns we sing, and we have our national heroes in the saints and church fathers and mothers. Our king is God. This sounds cute to the modern ear, but it is true, and it is deeply Orthodox, fundamentally biblical, so much so that this alter-nationalism was the basis for the early Roman persecution of Christians.
Thirdly, a child is baptized into life in Christ. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” says St Paul, “have been baptized into His death. Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). This newness of life is what we all participate in through baptism, adult and child alike. Certainly children participate differently than adults, but no less authentically.
Learning to pray, learning to read the Bible, to understand their inheritance, learning to walk in the way of the Lord, eating and drinking of the Eucharist, being trained in righteousness – this is as much walking in newness of life as anything in the spiritual life, and sometimes children are more engaged in these activities than adults in their church. But because they have been baptized into life in Christ they receive the benefits of that life, that is to say the Grace, the forgiveness, the Fatherhood of God, the nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The difference of twenty years and the ability to pay bills and stay up late does not make an adult more needful of these things than children or more worthy of them. Children become full participants in Christ, as he ordained them to be, and indeed as He became incarnate for them to be. This means as well that they are baptized into a promise. If they are buried with Christ in baptism, they will be raised with Him as well. They are raised with the promise of eternal life, with the expectation of the Resurrection. We do not hang this promise in front of them like a carrot (or a lollipop) to lead them to some future acceptance of Christ. By virtue of baptism, they participate in this promise now. They do so because they already experience life in Christ; indeed they grow up at His very knee.
-Fr. John Hainsworth