Born from above
Similarities and differences on Baptism among Catholics, other Christians
by Fr. David J. Endres
Editor’s note: This column, Outside Perspectives, addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the Catholic Church’s teaching.
Across Christian traditions, the rite of Baptism is central. Christians agree that Baptism is a key step in one’s spiritual life. Jesus himself was baptized and witnessed to the importance of being “born from above” and born of “water and Spirit” (John 3:3, 5). And in his final words to his disciples, he gave the command:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)
Baptism is practiced by nearly all who claim the name Christian, but the age at which Baptism may be received differs. It is not a new controversy. The first Christians discerned whether children or only adults should be baptized. The early Christian author Tertullian thought Baptism should be delayed until a person could profess their faith in Christ, but theologians like Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine taught the importance of infant Baptism.
By the fifth century, especially as Christians grew in number and adult converts lessened, infant Baptism became the norm. Since a profession of faith is necessary for Baptism, in the case of children, parents (and godparents) witnessed to their faith in Christ on behalf of the child and promised to raise him or her in that faith.
Based on this long tradition, many Christian communions practice infant Baptism, believing that since Baptism incorporates the child into Christ and the Christian community, it should not be delayed.
In addition to Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and some Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians allow children to be baptized. They cite not only Christian tradition that allows for Baptism, but also the instances in the New Testament in which entire families were baptized (presumably including those of mixed ages).
Baptism is practiced by nearly all who claim the name Christian
Though the Bible does not record the Baptism of infants or young children, it leaves open the possibility. (See, for instance, Lydia and her family’s Baptism in Acts 16:15, or St. Paul baptizing the household of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1:16.)
Other traditions, following some of the Protestant reformers, practice believer’s Baptism instead of infant Baptism. The Anabaptists of the 16th century taught and practiced adult Baptism, teaching that Baptism may be received validly only by those who confess their faith in Christ. The age at which one may request Baptism varies, but most who practice believer’s Baptism allow bap-tism by the age of 11 or 12.
For those that delay Baptism until adolescence, some offer a rite of infant dedication by which the family promises to raise their child in the faith. Such a ritual, however, is not the same as Baptism. There is no immersion or sprinkling with water; nor is there belief that the rite forgives sins.
Differing baptismal practices indicate deep divisions about the necessity and effects of the sacraments — those rites that Christians believe were instituted by Christ to confer grace. Some Christians consider Baptism an outward sign of a prior interior conversion. They see it as an ordinance — a ritual that demonstrates a person’s faith, but not a rite that is itself efficacious.
Others, including Catholic believers, teach that Baptism is not symbolic but a divinely instituted ritual with actual effects: purification from sin and a new birth in the Holy Spirit. They cite, for instance, the promise of St. Peter at Pentecost that through Baptism one receives “forgiveness of your sins” and “the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The person is incorporated into Christ and made a sharer in his life and mission.
Baptism is an invitation to the life of heaven.
Since Baptism forgives sin, in the case of infant Baptism, we may wonder from what sins children must be cleansed. In the early Church, the necessity of Baptism, even for children, was linked to a growing understanding of “original sin” — the remnant of sin that affects all of humanity because of the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Though small children, it is acknowledged, are not old enough to sin, still (in the words of Augustine), they are “poisoned by the serpent’s bite” — the effects of the first sin. According to this belief, Baptism forgives not just actual sin, but original sin.
Despite differences among Christians in practice and theology, the importance of Baptism can serve to unite. Whether Baptism is received in infancy or later, it witnesses to the importance of the ritual by which the person is freed from sin and incorporated into Christ. Baptism is an invitation to the life of heaven, for just as Christ was raised from the dead, through Baptism we are invited to newness of life in him.