Development of Doctrine, Chapter 4. Instances in Illustration: Infant Baptism
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One of the passages of St. Chrysostom to which I might refer is this, “We baptize infants, though they are not defiled with sin, that they may receive sanctity, righteousness, adoption, heirship, brotherhood with Christ, and may become His members.” (Aug. contr. Jul. i. 21.) This at least shows that he had a clear view of the importance and duty of infant baptism, but such was not the case even with saints in the generation immediately before him. As is well known, it was not unusual in that age of the Church for those, who might be considered catechumens, to delay their baptism, as Protestants now delay reception of the Holy Eucharist. It is difficult for us at this day to enter into the assemblage of motives which led to this postponement; to a keen sense and awe of the special privileges of baptism which could only once be received, other reasons would be added,—reluctance to being committed to a strict rule of life, and to making a public profession of religion, and to joining in a specially intimate fellowship or solidarity with strangers. But so it was in matter of fact, for reasons good or bad, that infant baptism, which is a fundamental rule of Christian duty with us, was less earnestly insisted on in early times.
Even in the fourth century St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, having Christian mothers, still were not baptized till they were adults. St. Gregory’s mother dedicated him to God immediately on his birth; and again when he had come to years of discretion, with the rite of taking the gospels into his hands by way of consecration. He was religiously-minded from his youth, and had devoted himself to a single life. Yet his baptism did not take place till after he had attended the schools of Cæsarea, Palestine, and Alexandria, and was on his voyage to Athens. He had embarked during the November gales, and for twenty days his life was in danger. He presented himself for baptism as soon as he got to land. St. Basil was the son of Christian confessors on both father’s and mother’s side. His grandmother Macrina, who brought him up, had for seven years lived with her husband in the woods of Pontus during the Decian persecution. His father was said to have wrought miracles; his mother, an orphan of great beauty of person, was forced from her unprotected state to abandon the hope of a single life, and was conspicuous in matrimony for her care of strangers and the poor, and for her offerings to the churches. How religiously she brought up her children is shown by the singular blessing, that four out of ten have since been canonized as Saints. St. Basil was one of these; yet the child of such parents was not baptized till he had come to man’s estate,—till, according to the Benedictine Editor, his twenty-first, and perhaps his twenty-ninth, year. St. Augustine’s mother, who is herself a Saint, was a Christian when he was born, though his father was not. Immediately on his birth, he was made a catechumen; in his childhood he fell ill, and asked for baptism. His mother was alarmed, and was taking measures for his reception into the Church, when he suddenly got better, and it was deferred. He did not receive baptism till the age of thirty-three, after he had been for nine years a victim of Manichæan error. In like manner, St. Ambrose, though brought up by his mother and holy nuns, one of them his own sister St. Marcellina, was not baptized till he was chosen bishop at the age of about thirty-four, nor his brother St. Satyrus till about the same age, after the serious warning of a shipwreck. St. Jerome too, though educated at Rome, and so far under religious influences, as, with other boys, to be in the observance of Sunday, and of devotions in the catacombs, had no friend to bring him to baptism, till he had reached man’s estate and had travelled.
Now how are the modern sects, which protest against infant baptism, to be answered by Anglicans with this array of great names in their favour? By the later rule of the Church surely; by the dicta of some later Saints, as by St. Chrysostom; by one or two inferences from Scripture; by an argument founded on the absolute necessity of Baptism for salvation,—sufficient reasons certainly, but impotent to reverse the fact that neither in Dalmatia nor in Cappadocia, neither in Rome, nor in Africa, was it then imperative on Christian parents, as it is now, to give baptism to their young children. It was on retrospect and after the truths of the Creed had sunk into the Christian mind, that the authority of such men as St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustine brought round the orbis terrarum to the conclusion, which the infallible Church confirmed, that observance of the rite was the rule, and the non-observance the exception.