For Christians, baptism is one of the three rites of initiation which incorporate an individual into the Body of Christ– that is, into membership in the Christian church (see 1 Cor.13). The others are CONFIRMATION and Eucharist. Baptism takes place when an individual is immersed or sprinkled with water while the baptizer recites this formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). As a sacrament, baptism removes the sins of the newly initiated, which is in itself an unmerited gift from God. Christian baptism may be traced back to the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Most Christian denominations require infant baptism because of Jesus' injunction, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (John 3:5), as well as the authority of St. Peter (Acts 2:38-39).
By the third century, the early church began to administer baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist to infants immediately after birth. The church recognized the spiritual equality of all of its members, whether children or adults. Writing about 80 C.E., Irenaeus of Lyons underscored this point: "For he [the Lord] came to save all of them through himself; all of them, I say, who through him are born again in God, the infants, and the small children, and the boys, and the mature, and the older people" (Adversus Omnes Haereses, Book 5).
The Traditio Apostolica (c. 217), which is attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, provides a third-century description of the rite of baptism and implications for children. The document notes that children are to be baptized before adults and that parents or relatives are to answer the prescribed questions if the children are unable to do so. Origen, a third-century theologian in the East, mandated infant baptism in his Commentarii in Romanos. Moreover, the Nicene Creed, which was drafted in the fourth century, acknowledged "one baptism for the remission of sins" and continued to associate confirmation and the Eucharist with baptism. By the time of Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century, the baptism of infants was widespread in the West. He recommended that children were to be baptized as soon as possible because of the high rate of infant mortality. According to St. Augustine, baptism removed both the original sin of Adam and Eve as well as any other sins. But the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) rejected both the early tradition of administering Eucharist to infants after baptism and the fifth-century custom of delaying confirmation and Eucharist for several years after baptism, and forbade infants from receiving the Eucharist until they had reached the age of discretion (i.e., seven). They equated spiritual readiness with reason.
After 1525, Anabaptists shared the view that physically immature children were also spiritually innocent, but they became the only Christian sect to deny the efficacy of infant baptism. Anabaptists insisted that preadolescent children could not be admitted into the church because they lacked faith. At the same time the Anabaptists comforted distraught parents by maintaining the belief that unbaptized children who died before adolescence were assured salvation because they were incapable of deliberate sin.
In the 1960s, the second Vatican Council authorized a ritual for the baptism of children (Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum, 1969) that discourages private baptisms. It prescribes that baptism is to take place in the parish church either within the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist or at least preceded by the Liturgy of the Word. The members of the parish are enjoined to assist the parents and the godparents in the education of children in the truths of the faith. Finally, the new rite stresses the inherent link between the three sacraments of initiation, even though in practice they are administered over an extended period of time (age eight for Eucharist and sixteen for confirmation).
Cullmann, Oscar. 1978. Baptism in the New Testament. Trans. J. K. S. Reid. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
DeMolen, Richard L. 1975. "Childhood and the Sacraments in the Sixteenth Century." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 66: 49-71.
Nocent, Adrian. 1997. "Christian Initiation." In Sacraments and Sacramentals, ed. Anscar J. Chupungco. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Osborne, Kenan B. 1987. The Christian Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. New York: Paulist Press.
Searle, Mark. 1980. Christening: The Making of Christians. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
RICHARD L. DEMOLEN