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Ask A Catholic: Infant Baptisms

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What questions do you have about Catholicism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below. 

By Mitch Finley

Where do you find support for infant baptism in the Scripture?

First, it’s important to understand that not only Catholics practice infant baptism.  Others include Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and several Protestant denominations: Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and other Reformed denominations, Methodists, Nazarenes, and the Moravian Church.

Down through history infant baptism has been controversial.  Still, the Catholic conviction is clear in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”:

The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole ‘households’ received baptism, infants may also have been baptised

(1252)

The reference here isn’t scriptural; rather, it’s patristic.  That is, it refers to nonscriptural but historically important Christian documents, by early Fathers of the Church and church councils.  These are dated from the second and third centuries, many centuries before Martin Luther, John Calvin and their countless heirs were born.  This reflects the Catholic Church’s conviction that Scripture and Tradition depend upon and support each other when it comes to understanding and living the Christian Faith.

Two examples: Origen wrote in the third century that “according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants” (Homilies on Leviticus, 8:3:11 [A.D. 244]). And the Council of Carthage, in 253, condemned the opinion that baptism should be withheld from infants until the eighth day after birth. Later Augustine, in the fifth century, taught, “The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned . . . nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).

But one might ask, does the Bible ever state, explicitly, that infants or young children can be baptized?  The phrase “infant baptism” never occurs in the New Testament, but the implication is there.  We read that Lydia was converted by Paul’s preaching and that, “She was baptized, with her household” (Acts 16:15). Also, the Philippian jailer whom Paul and Silas had converted to the faith was baptized along with his household. We are told that “he was baptized, with all his family” (Acts 16:33). And in his greetings to the Corinthians, Paul recalled that, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 1:16).

In all these cases, whole households or families were baptized. This means more than just the spouse; the children too were included.  If Acts referred simply to the Philippian jailer and his wife, then we would read that “he and his wife were baptized,” but we do not. Thus his children must have been baptized as well. The same applies to the other cases of household baptism in Scripture.

Granted, in these cases we do not know the exact age of the children; they may not have been infants. Then again, they could have been babes in arms.  More probably, there were both younger and older children. Certainly there must have been infants and very young children who were baptized.  Furthermore, given the New Testament pattern of household baptism, if there were to be exceptions to this rule (such as infants), surely they would have been mentioned explicitly.

Basically, the Catholic Church—and all the other Christian churches that practice infant baptism—is merely continuing the tradition established by the first Christians, who heeded the words of Christ: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).



Mitch Finley

About Mitch Finley

Mitch Finley is the author of 30+ books on Roman Catholic theological topics and spirituality, all written to appeal to both non-academic and academic readers. Mitch holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and an M.A. in Theology from Marquette University. He and Kathy Finley have been married since 1974 and are the parents of three grown sons. To learn more visit mitchandkathyfinley.com.

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