St. Paul tells us that, as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27); and St. Peter tells us that Baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21). How can an involuntary child “put on Christ” if he had no say in the baptism? In what sense and in what way is baptism salvific if the child is unable to answer God with a good conscience? Fr. John Whiteford discusses the topic of infant baptism.
What saith the Scriptures?
The New Testament does not explicitly say anything about infant baptism, one way or the other. But St. Paul does tell us that baptism is the sign of entry into the New Covenant. He calls it both “the circumcision made without hands” and “the circumcision of Christ”:
“In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).
So in the Old Testament, was circumcision limited to those who were old enough to speak for themselves and choose it, or was it mandated for infants as well? When God instituted circumcision, he specifically stated that it was mandatory for infants:
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant (Genesis 17:12-14).
Note that it not only states that a child should be circumcised on the eighth day, but also states that the child who is not circumcised on the eighth day “shall be cut off from his people...” Why? Because “he hath broken my covenant.” A child who is eight days old cannot speak for himself. He can neither compel his parents to have him circumcised, nor does he have any power to resist it if his parents chose to have him circumcised. And yet God tells Abraham that a child who is not circumcised has broken the covenant. This is because the Scriptures do not reflect the extreme individualism of our contemporary culture. Our parents make all kinds of decisions for us. We are connected with them, and they can exercise faith on our behalf. They can also make bad choices that negatively affect us. At some point we either have to choose to continue along with those decisions, or we can choose to chart our own course, but when we are infants, this is clearly not the case.
St. Peter said in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call (Acts 2:38-39).
Now one could interpret this to mean that this promise would apply to their children when they came of age at some future point, but given that he was speaking to Jews who had since the time of their father Abraham initiated their sons into the covenant through circumcision on the eighth day, unless infants were specifically excluded by the Apostles, these people would have had every reason to believe that this had a more immediate application, and that baptism was for even their infant children.
Furthermore, there are references in the New Testament to an entire household being baptized (e.g. Acts 16:33-34). While this does not prove that infants were included, there is no suggestion that they were not, and it is very likely the case that they were.
The Tradition of the Church is abundantly clear on this subject. One of the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament was St. Hippolytus of Rome, and when speaking of how baptisms were done, he says:
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [written in 215 A.D.]).
And St. Cyprian of Carthage, responding to a dispute about whether children should be baptized on the eighth day or sooner, wrote:
“But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified with in the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man” (Epistle 63:2, To Fidus, on the Baptism of Infants, written around the year 253 A.D.).
And what is very significant here is that no one was suggesting that infants should wait until they were old enough to speak for themselves—only about whether one should wait eight days, or less.
One could multiply quotes from the Fathers on this subject, but you can find many of them here.
What are infants capable of?
Finally, I am not so sure that we can assume that infants have no spiritual awareness, given what we are told about St. John the Baptist in Luke chapter one. We are told that while he was still an unborn child in his mother’s womb he leaped for joy when his mother greeted the Virgin Mary who was already carrying the unborn Christ in her womb:
And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink [i.e., he will be a Nazarite]; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).
This clearly indicates that St. John the Baptist had a spiritual life even as an unborn infant. While St. John the Baptist was a uniquely called and gifted person, nothing in Scripture suggests that his ability to experience the grace of God as an infant was unique to him.