According to the Fathers, God created man with a natural desire for love, goodness, life and that which causes and sustains it, because God Himself is absolutely Love, the Good, the Life and Cause of all existence. The Fathers say that man also has been given an innate desire for the truth, because God is the Truth. Mankind naturally inherits this. Afterwards, delusion sets in through mistaking sensual pleasure and created things in general as the Good, the Life, etc. and men then doubt that God is the Good, etc. and so choose untruth under the influence of a wish to best satisfy certain passionate desires, man naturally knows that God is the Good, the Life, the Truth, etc. Hence it can be said that:
St. Maximos the Confessor, “First Century on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice”:
100. God, Who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for Him, combining it in a natural way with the power of our intelligence...
St. John of Damascus, “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, Book I, Ch. III:
“That there is a God, then, is no matter of doubt to those who receive the Holy Scripture, the Old Testament, I mean, and the New; nor indeed to most of the Greeks. For, as we said, the knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature. But since the wickedness of the Evil One had prevailed so mightily against man’s nature as even to drive some into denying the existence of God, that most foolish and woefulest pit of destruction (whose folly David, revealed of the Divine meaning, exposed when he said, ‘The fool said in his heart. There is no God’)...”
It is the teaching of the Fathers that human nature was created by God, for goodness and communion with God, in every way predisposed toward virtue. Therefore, along with love of God and all virtue, faith in God, the belief that God is “the Good” Who we seek, the Source of all goodness, is natural to humanity. It is only through the entrance of the deception of the devil, using pleasure as bait, that delusion later sets in and that faith is misdirected to things that are not God. Therefore, the whole criticism of infant baptism, which is founded on the assertion of the inability of infants to believe in God, cf. “he who believes and is baptized will be saved”, is completely un-Christian and even Manichean. It presupposes that man is naturally evil, rather than evil is the misuse of man’s nature on the basis of delusion, that is, on the basis of an acquired misbelief or misperception. Since it presupposes that human nature is naturally sinful or evil, it presupposes that God created something evil and then added an over-riding, corrective influence, grace.
As to an argument from tradition justifying infant baptism, let us say this: while there is no verse that says ‘baptize infants’, neither is there one that says ‘do not baptize infants’. Moreover, indirect evidence may be gathered for the rightness of infant baptism from the New Testament, from reason itself, and explicit ancient evidence from the Fathers of the Church beginning with the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.
The Anabaptist position, of course, is that because an infant cannot express in rational discourse and words that we understand that he or she has faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, therefore one must not baptize the infant or recognize infant baptism. However, this line of reasoning is extremely problematic. If because the infant cannot verbally affirm its faith, then it is not baptizable, then neither are retarded or mentally-ill people to be baptized either, since many of them cannot formulate in rational discourse the faith they have in their heart. Therefore, there is no possibility of salvation for infants, children, mentally-ill, or retarded people, simply because the Anabaptists cannot ascertain whether or not in his heart he has ‘Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Savior’. However, I seriously doubt if the Anabaptists are consistent in regard to the mentally-ill or retarded. They probably baptize such persons anyway, but in so doing they undermine their argument completely.
Christ did not always ask for a clear confession of faith in Him before He healed someone. For instance, in Matthew 17:14-18, we find that a young boy is possessed by a demon and is convulsed before our Lord’s very eyes. The father of the child pleads with the Lord to heal his son, who cannot express his faith or lack of faith in such a state. Although the child cannot speak for himself and affirm his faith in Christ in any way visible to man, the Lord heals the child. So, if such a thing is possible with demonic possession, why should Baptism be any different?
Let us take a clearer example of the Lord interacting with infants.
“And they were bringing to Him also the infants, in order that He may be touching them; but after the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “Let alone the little children (the Greek is brephe ; literally, “infants”) to come to Me, and cease hindering them; for of such is the kingdom of God. [Lk. 18:15,16]
According to St. Kyril of Alexandria, in his 121st homily on Luke: “The mothers, desiring His blessing, brought the babes, begging for their infants the touch of His holy hand.” I do not think that anyone will dispute that the passage means that parents desired Christ to bless their little children or infants. Now, here, although the infants plainly could neither bring themselves to Christ nor confess faith in His ability to sanctify them with His blessing, yet Christ not only blessed and sanctified them, but He even forbade anyone to hinder infants from being brought to be blessed and sanctified. If Christ considered the state of an infant no impediment to receiving His sanctifying blessing, why would He consider the infantile state a hindrance to Baptism? However, the Anabaptists, to be consistent, should also find fault with the Lord here, as they find fault with those who bring infants to the Lord for the greatest sanctification and blessing of all, that of Baptism. So, we see to what a blasphemous act of contradiction the Anabaptists must assent if they will stubbornly hold to their disdain for infant baptism.
Moreover, a fairly strong case can be made for the validity of infant baptism on the basis of the parallel between circumcision and baptism found in the New Testament. God commanded Abraham and his descendants to circumcise their whole household, including infants, on the eighth day. The Lord said that if the infants were circumcised, then they were accounted as inheriting the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants, but if they were not circumcised, then they would be considered cut off from the covenant. An explicit case of infant circumcision occurs in Exodus where Moses and his wife Saphora are threatened with death if they will not circumcise Moses’ new-born son as the other young son had also been circumcised. Of course, they circumcised the new-born immediately. We see that circumcision was given for a sign of the covenant which was given to Abraham because he had demonstrated his strong faith in God, yet infants and young children could also be considered inheritors of the promises and covenant to Abraham by receiving the sign of the covenant, circumcision, even while they were still unable to form a rational, verbal expression of their faith in God. This alone should be a stumbling block for those who think that without such a rational, verbal confession of faith, a divinely-established rite is made of no effect. If that were so, then circumcision of infants should have meant nothing to God, and the Lord would have commanded them to be re-circumcised when they were old enough to make a verbal confession of faith.
In the New Testament, circumcision is considered to be a type foreshadowing Baptism, as, for instance St. Paul says to the Church at Colosae:
“...11in Whom also ye were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh in the circumcision of the Christ, 12having been buried with Him in the baptism, in which also ye were raised with Him through faith in the energy of God, Who raised Him from the dead. [Col. 2:11,12]
If Holy Baptism, which is the entrance of someone into the New Covenant, is typified by circumcision, which is the entrance into the Old, and the latter was able to be given to infants and little children, how much more should the former, the glorious and more powerful Mystery of Holy Baptism be? If the type was given to all ages how much more should the fulfillment of the type be?
Additionally, the likelihood is that infants or little children were among those baptized in instances in the Book of Acts where it speaks of someone who was baptized as well as all “his household” or “all his family” (Acts. 16:14-15, 16:33, etc.)
And lastly, but most importantly, infant baptism was the practice of the early Church.
Even among those some wrong-minded persons that delayed being baptized until they were 30 or 40, (whose reticence the Anabaptists cite as proof that infant baptism is an innovation) even among these, one cannot find it said that they did so because they considered baptism ineffective if one were baptized when a child or an infant. Indeed, why would they wait until they were 30 or 40 being already convinced of the truth of the Faith and the power of Baptism? Certainly, if it were a matter of disbelief in the effectiveness of bestowing Baptism on infants or children, then they would have only waited to be baptized until they passed beyond the bounds of childhood. But this is not what we see; rather, we are told by ancient sources that they delayed Baptism until they were quite old or even near death, because they wished to avoid soiling their Baptismal purity with the more frequent falls of youth.
Having examined the foregoing, let us now provide a sampling of the evidence for a consistent practice of permitting infant baptism in the ancient Church from the Holy Fathers and other witnesses arranged in chronological order.
St. Dionysios the Areopagite, disciple of St. Paul and first Bishop of Athens (95 A.D.), responds in the 7th Chapter of his epistle “On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” to a question sent to him by St. Timothy, disciple of St. Paul and first Bishop of Ephesus, concerning how to respond to someone who was dubious about the worth of infant Baptism:
“But let me set down what our blessed teachers, in their knowledge of the earliest tradition, have passed down to us. What they say is this, and it is true. Children raised up in accordance with holy precepts will acquire the habits of holiness. They will avoid all the errors and all the temptations of an unholy life. Understanding the truth of this, our divine guides [the Apostles] decided it was a good thing to admit children to holy Baptism, though on condition that the parents of the child would entrust him to some good teacher who is himself initiated in the divine things and who could provide religious teaching as the child’s spiritual father and as the sponsor of salvation. Anyone thus committed to raise the child up along the way of a holy life is asked by the hierarch to agree to the ritual renunciations and to speak the words of promise. Those who scoff at this are quite wrong in thinking that the one is initiated into the divine mysteries instead of the other, for he does not say “I am making the renunciations and the promises for the child,” but “the child himself is assigned and enrolled.” In effect what is said is this: “I promise that when this child can understand sacred truth I shall educate him and shall raise him up by my teaching in such a way that he will renounce all the temptations of the devil, that he will bind himself to the sacred promises and will bring them to fruit.” So I do not think there is anything ridiculous if the child is brought up with a godly upbringing, provided of course that there is a holy guide and sponsor to form holy habits in him and to guard him against the temptations of the devil. When the hierarch admits the child to a share in the holy Mysteries it is so that he may derive nourishment from this, so that he may spend his entire life in the unceasing contemplation of the divine things, may progress in his communion with them, may therefore acquire a holy and enduring way of life, and may be brought up in sanctity by the guidance of a holy sponsor who himself lives in conformity with God.”
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180 A.D.):
“The Son of God came to save all persons by means of Himself - all, I say, who through Him are born again [i.e. baptized; cf. Jn. 3] to God - infants, children, boys, youths, and old men.” (“Against All Heresies,” Bk. 2, 22:4)
St. Hippolytus of Rome (215 A.D.):
“Baptize first the children; and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.” (“The Apostolic Tradition”, 21)
Origen (244 AD):
“According to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants.” (Homily on Leviticus 8:3)
St. Cyprian (A.D. 253):
From St. Cyprian’s Epistle 58 - “To Fidus, on the Baptism of Infants”
“...in respect of the case of the 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 that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” (Luke 9:56) as far as we can, we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.
3. Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift. Elisaios, beseeching God, so laid himself upon the infant son of the widow, who was lying dead, that his head was applied to his head, and his face to his face, and the limbs of Elisaios were spread over and joined to each of the limbs of the child, and his feet to his feet. If this thing be considered with respect to the inequality of our birth and our body, an infant could not be made equal with a person grown up and mature, nor could its little limbs fit and be equal to the larger limbs of a man. But in that is expressed the divine and spiritual equality, that all men are like and equal, since they have once been made by God; and our age may have a difference in the increase of our bodies, according to the world, but not according to God; unless that very grace also which is given to the baptized is given either less or more, according to the age of the receivers, whereas the Holy Spirit is not given with measure, but by the love and mercy of the Father alike to all. For God, as He does not accept the person, so does not accept the age; since He shows Himself Father to all with well-weighed equality for the attainment of heavenly grace.
4. For, with respect to what you say, that the aspect of an infant in the first days after its birth is not pure, so that any one of us would still shudder at kissing it, we do not think that this ought to be alleged as any impediment to heavenly grace. For it is written, “To the pure all things are pure.” (Titus 1:15) Nor ought any of us to shudder at that which God hath condescended to make. For although the infant is still fresh from its birth, yet it is not such that any one should shudder at kissing it in giving grace and in making peace; since in the kiss of an infant every one of us ought for his very religion’s sake, to consider the still recent hands of God themselves, which in some sort we are kissing, in the man lately formed and freshly born, when we are embracing that which God has made. For in respect of the observance of the eighth day in the Jewish circumcision of the flesh, a sacrament was given beforehand in shadow and in usage; but when Christ came, it was fulfilled in truth. For because the eighth day, that is, the first day after the Sabbath, was to be that on which the Lord should rise again, and should quicken us, and give us circumcision of the spirit, the eighth day, that is, the first day after the Sabbath, and the Lord’s day, went before in the figure; which figure ceased when by and by the truth came, and spiritual circumcision was given to us.
5. For which reason we think that no one is to be hindered from obtaining grace by that law which was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision, but that absolutely every man is to be admitted to the grace of Christ, since Peter also in the Acts of the Apostles speaks, and says, “The Lord hath said to me that I should call no man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)” But if anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted-and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace-how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, but only, being born after the flesh according to Adam, has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth...
6. And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to he hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think it is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat.”
Optatus of Mileve (A.D. 365):
“The baptismal garment shows no crease when infants put it on, it is not too scanty for young men, it fits women without alteration.”
[Against Parmenium, 5:10]
St. Gregory the Theologian (c. 388 A.D.):
“Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Protector ...Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith! ‘Be it so,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of the lack nor of the grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly, especially if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated...” (“Oration On Holy Baptism” 40:17)
St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 388):
“Blessed be God, Who alone does wonderful things! You have seen how numerous are the gifts of baptism. Although many men think that the only gift it confers is remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless (lit. “without sin”), that they too may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places of the Holy Spirit.” [3rd Instruction, 6th Paragraph, Ad Neophytos or Baptismal Instructions, p.57]
St. Jerome of Bethlehem (A.D. 403):
“While the son is a child and thinks as a child and until he comes to years of discretion to choose between the two roads to which the letter of Pythagoras points, his parents are responsible for his actions whether these be good or bad. But perhaps you imagine that, if they are not baptized, the children of Christians are liable for their own sins; and that no guilt attaches to parents who withhold from baptism those who by reason of their tender age can offer no objection to it. The truth is that, as baptism ensures the salvation of the child, this in turn brings advantage to the parents. Whether you would offer your child or not lay within your choice, but now that you have offered her, you neglect her at your peril.”(“To Laeta”, Epistle 107:6)
Council of Carthage, Canon 60, (A.D. 418):
“Canon 2. Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized....let him be anathema.”
[Note that the Sixth Ecumenical Council (692 A.D.) and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.) both ratified this council’s canons.]
St. Cyril of Alexandria (444 A.D.):
St. Cyril speaks of how “a newborn child is brought forward to receive the anointing of initiation, or rather of consumation through holy baptism.” [Commentary on John, 7 (A.D. 428)]
St. Pope Leo the Great [pope from A.D. 440-461]:
“QUESTION XIX. Concerning those who after being baptized in infancy were captured by the Gentiles, and lived with them after the manner of the Gentiles, when they come back to Roman territory as still young men, if they seek communion, what shall be done?
REPLY. If they have only lived with Gentiles and eaten sacrificial food, they can be purged by fasting and laying on of hands, in order that for the future abstaining from things offered to idols, they may be partakers of Christ’s mysteries. But if they have either worshipped idols or been polluted with manslaughter or fornication, they must not be admitted to communion, except by public penance.” [To Rusticus, Epistle 167(A.D. 459), in NPNF2, XII:112]
St. Gregory the Great of Rome (c. 604 AD)[ Pope A.D. 590-604], To Leander, Epistle 43(A.D. 591),in NPNF2,XII:88
“But with respect to trine immersion in baptism... we, in immersing thrice, signify the sacraments of the three days’ sepulture; so that, when the infant is a third time lifted out of the water, the resurrection after a space of three days may be expressed.”
The Council of Celchyth (Canterbury, England, A.D. 816)
“Let ministers take notice that when they administer the holy baptism, that they do not pour the holy water upon the heads of the infants, but that they be always immersed in the font; as the Son of God has in His own person given an example to every believer, when He was thrice immersed into the waters of the Jordan. In this manner it ought to be observed.” (Canon 6)