Origen and Infant Baptism

Origen is one of the more fascinating figures from the Patristic period. I posted recently about his Homily on Luke in which he addressed good/ evil thoughts. Today I wanted to talk about two different passages from Origen’s homilies that address infant baptism. These are taken from The Faith of the Early FathersVol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens.

Origen writes in Homily 8 on Leviticus:

“In the Church, 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 which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would seem superfluous.”

And in Homily 5 on Romans he writes:

“The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. For the Apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stains of sin, which must by washed away through water and the Spirit.”

Now, I want to begin by saying that I come from church traditions that do not baptize infants. Churches which I have attended in the past, and the church I currently attend, practice baby dedications in lieu of infant baptism. This is when parents go up in front of the church with their baby and dedicate themselves to raising the child up in Christian faith. The church also often prays for the parents and the baby and commits to help the parents raise the child according to Christian teaching.

Origen’s homilies clearly emphasize the practice of infant baptism in light of some “stain of sin” that is present in everyone, including infants. In the first passage from Origen, his argument is predicated on Baptism being used only for the remission of sins. He provides a nice syllogism: Since Baptism is believed to be used for remission of sins and since we baptize infants, therefore infants must need remission of sins. If one does not view Baptism as a requirement for washing away sins (like many Protestant churches, including my own), then the syllogism falls apart. For example, if baptism is only a public declaration of one’s faith and a commitment to turn from past sins and a pattern of sinfulness, then baptizing an infant appears to be no different than a baby dedication. Often the prayers prayed by the minister in baby dedications and in infant baptisms are quite similar.

Now as to the second passage, Origen directly links baptism of infants and the “stain of sin” by pointing to the Apostles teachings and practices. Apostolic succession and authority was important in the early church. If you could trace a teaching or a belief back to the Apostles, then it was seen as more authoritative than something a group started practicing on their own. Origen here may simply be attempting to establish such an authoritarian link. However, I believe that it’s more likely that infant baptism was practiced by the Apostles. For example, we can look in the book of Acts, the conversion of Lydia and the baptism of her whole household (Acts 16.13-15). This passage is often pointed to as exemplifying infant baptism, i.e. that there were probably infants or young children in her household.

So what do we do about this? If the Apostles practiced it, doesn’t that mean we should today?

Well, what did Baptism mean in the New Testament? John the Baptist baptized people before Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead. His was a baptism of repentance. Why did Jesus get baptized in Mark 1? Baptism in the New Testament is an interesting thing to study, and I invite discussion on it more generally in the comments section. I think that a baptism of a “whole household” simply meant that the household had been dedicated to Christianity in place of Greco-Roman practices, or even traditional Judaism.

Personal story: I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist church and then took part in a “believer’s baptism” at an Evangelical Free Church as an 18 year-old. I also am about to be a father and my wife and I will surely dedicate our daughter in our church. We will also dedicate ourselves to raising her up in Christian teachings and principles.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you baptize infants in your church? Were your children baptized as infants? Should we/ do we believe that infants are inherently sinful?

6 thoughts on “Origen and Infant Baptism

  1. Christ is risen!
    Absolutely. My third child was baptized this morning as a matter of fact! I’m planning to write something for my blog on Infant baptism soon, I’ll drop a link here when I do.
    But… there is more going on than simply the question of infants and sin. Those who are opposed to the practice also nearly universally deny that baptism does something they believe it’s only a symbol of something which happens independently of baptism.
    Congrats on your child by the way.
    I’ll be getting back to you in a couple of days.

  2. Dan, I recently had a discussion with someone on this subject… as a result I encountered a third Origen reference his Homily 14 on Luke explicitly mentions infant baptism.

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