Infant Baptism

by Mark J. Bonocore

Is it correct and Apostolic to Baptize infants and children before the age of reason?

Well, first of all, it must be admitted that there is no specific reference to infant Baptism in the Scriptures. However, that's really beside the point, since there is nothing that speaks against infant Baptism either; and, as you and I were discussing at the Oratory, there is also no Scriptural account of Baptizing retarded or mentally-imbalanced people, yet the Church has always done so.

Case in point, in Matthew 17:14-18, we are told how Jesus cast out a demon from a young boy because of an appeal by the boy's father:

"When they came to the crowd, a man approached, knelt down before Him, and said, 'Lord, have pity on my son for he is a lunatic and suffers severely...."

And Jesus heals the boy because of the father's faith. Now, obviously, it was not possible for this boy to have faith in Jesus on his own. He was psychologically and spiritually disturbed (whether naturally or supernaturally); yet Jesus used the father's faith to make him whole again. So, if such a thing is possible with demonic possession, why should Baptism be any different?

Many retarded and/or insane people do not have the ability to reason so as to "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior" (as the Evangelicals say ;-) Yet, didn't Jesus come to save them as well? Don't they need to be Baptized into Christ? (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27)

Well, if so, then why should we assume that the ability to reason is necessary for Baptism? Why can't babies be Baptized before they reach the age of reason?

Well, an Evangelical might tell you that it's because the ability to reason is necessary before one can sin. And, indeed, that is very true. We Catholics have an old expression:

"If there's no knowledge, then there's no responsibility. If there's no responsibility, then there's no sin."

So, our Evangelical brothers and sisters try to apply this to Baptism. In the case of an infant or a retarded person, they will say that these lack the ability to reason, and therefore they are free of guilt. And, again, that is very true. However, think about what it implies. :-) What this implies is that infants and retarded people do not need a Savior! This, to us Catholics, is completely ridiculous. :-)

We know from Scripture itself that Christ came to save everybody, including infants and retarded people. He is their Savior just as much as He is the Savior of rational, healthy adults.

So, the real issue with those who deny infant Baptism is that they deny the reality of what we call original sin, something which non-Catholics usually confuse with "original guilt" (which Catholics DO NOT believe in). For example, we do not hold that a child is born guilty of sin. That is not the Catholic position at all. Rather, we believe that the child is personally innocent; however, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, the child is born with a "macula" (in Latin, a "dark spot") -- a lack of the light of God's grace in the soul (something the Virgin Mary did not lack, and so she is the Im-maculate Conception).

This lack of God's light (grace) is why we have an inclination toward sin; and all people (whether they have the ability to reason or not) suffer from it. Yet, in Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, and become adopted sons and daughters of God. The light of God's grace dwells in our souls, and so we have the ability to overcome our sinful inclinations and live as the children of God we are called to be.

And this is why we believe that Baptism is a Sacrament. It is not something which we do to ourselves, but it's something that is done to us by God through the ministry of His Church. We merely accept it; or someone else accepts it for us. And, it's here that we run into the main problem of those who deny infant Baptism:

Is Baptism merely a "washing away of sin”? Or is it something more? Is it the entering into a Covenant of Love with the Father? We Catholics believe that it is. We believe that Baptism is the entering into a Covenant bond -- an adoption into the very Son-ship which Christ Himself enjoys with the Father. And, in this, it mirrors the Old Jewish Covenant, which was brought about by circumcision. Indeed, St. Paul himself calls Baptism our circumcision in Colossians 2:11-12:

"In Him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with Him in Baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the power of God, Who raised Him from the dead." (Colossians 2:11-12)

Now, under the Old Jewish Law, circumcision was performed on a male child 8 days after birth. It was also something that was done to the child. The child did not choose to be initiated into the Chosen People of Israel. Yet this was what God commanded Abraham to do, so that his children (and the children of his tribe) might become inheritors of the Covenant God made with Abraham. So, if this was possible for infants under the Old Jewish Covenant, how much more is it possible for the New Covenant we have in Christ Jesus, Who says:

"Let the children be, do not keep them back from me; the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14)

Also, Luke 18:15 adds to this, saying how "They brought little children to Him."

Indeed, the Greek word for "children" here ("brepha") actually means "babies" -- little children who are quite unable to approach Christ on their own.

And so, while there is no specific mention of infants being Baptized, we do see numerous allusions to it in Scripture. For example, after Peter gives his public address on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:37-39 tells us,

"Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, 'What are we to do, my brothers?' Peter said to them, 'Repent and be Baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to YOUR CHILDREN and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:37-39)

Also, Scripture gives us numerous accounts of entire households being Baptized. Here again, the Greek word for "household" assumes that children and babies are included:

Acts 16:14-15 -- "One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. After she AND HER HOUSEHOLD had been baptized, she offered us an invitation ...."

Acts 16:30-33 --"Then he (the jailer) brought them out and said, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they (Paul & Silas) said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus and you AND YOUR HOUSEHOLD will be saved.' So they spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. He took them in at that hour of the night (midnight, v. 25) and bathed their wounds; then he and ALL HIS FAMILY were baptized at once."

Acts 18:8 --"Crispus, the synagogue official, came to believe in the Lord along with his ENTIRE HOUSEHOLD, and many of the Corinthians who heard believed and were baptized."

See also Acts 10:24-27 & 10:44-48 where Peter Baptizes the entire family of Cornelius.

So, that's what we have from the Scriptures. Yet, turning to Sacred Tradition, the writings of the early Church Fathers show quite clearly that the Apostles practiced infant Baptism. And this can be traced back to the Apostles quite easily. It goes like this:

In the year 215 AD, the Church Father St. Hippolytus of Rome writes:

"And they shall Baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family." (Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition, 21 c. AD 215).

Now, St. Hippolytus was the disciple of St. Irenaeus of Lyon; and, in AD 180, St. Irenaeus writes:

"For He came to save all through Himself --all, I say, who through Him are born again to God [i.e., Baptized] -- infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men." (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 2:22:4 -- c. AD 180)

St. Irenaeus was the disciple of St. Polycarp, who was the disciple of the Apostle John himself (as well as an associate of the Apostle Philip). And, in AD 155, St. Polycarp said this at his execution:

"Polycarp declared, 'Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me injury. How can I blaspheme my King and Savior?" (Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp 9 c. AD 156)

Now, it is well documented that "The Martyrdom of Polycarp" was written the year after the saint's execution; and so the quote above is extremely reliable. It is also well documented that Polycarp was 86 years old at the time of his death. Therefore, if the saint claims to have served Jesus for 86 years, it therefore follows that he was Baptized as an infant. And, in another place, we are told that Polycarp was Baptized by none other than the Apostle John! :-) Therefore, at least in the case of St. John, we can show conclusively that the Apostles Baptized infants.

Furthermore, here are some more Church Fathers on infant Baptism. Thought I'd throw them in. ;-)

St. Justin Martyr (150 AD):

"And both men and women who have been Christ's disciples since infancy, remain pure, and at the age of sixty or seventy years ..." (Justin Martyr, First Apology,15:6 -- AD 110-165)

Origen (244 AD):

"Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And, indeed, if there were nothing in infants that required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would be superfluous." (Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8:3 -- AD 244)

St. Cyprian (250 AD)

"But in respect to the case of infants, which you say ought not to be Baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think one who is just born should not be Baptized and sanctified within the eighth day ....And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from Baptism ...we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons." (Cyprian, Epistle 58, To Fides [54] -- AD 251)

St. Gregory Nazianzus (381 AD)

"Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children and conscious neither of the loss nor of grace? Are we to Baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated." (Gregory Nazianzus, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:28 -- AD 381)

St. John Chrysostom (388 AD)

"We do Baptize infants, although they are not guilty of any [personal] sins." (John Chrysostom, Ad Neophytos -- AD 388)

St. Ambrose (387 AD)

"Unless a man be born again through water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. No one is expected: not the infant; not the one prevented by necessity." (Ambrose of Milan, Abraham 2,11:79 -- AD 387)

St. Augustine (415 AD)

"Likewise, whoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that Sacrament (Baptism) are alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to loose no time and run in haste to administer Baptism to infant children, because it is believed as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ." (Augustine, Epistle 167 -- AD 415)

Council of Carthage (418 AD)

"Canon 2: Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mother's wombs should not be Baptized ...let him be anathema." (Council of Carthage, AD 418)

Mark J. Bonocore