A congregation rejoices when a new child is added to its midst, yet the church often wrestles—in both theology and practice—with how to best receive and minister to infants and children entrusted to her care.
Frequent questions arise like:
> How are infants and children impacted by sin?
> How does God treat people who die in their infancy or childhood?
> When and how are children considered members of the church?
> When and how are children instructed in Christian doctrine?
Infants and Children in the Church addresses these critical and sensitive questions from a variety of rich traditions, including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist, so that Christians can make the most of every opportunity as they minister to children.
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|Age Range:||3 Months to 18 Years|
About the Author
Kevin E. Lawson is professor of Christian education, and director of the PhD and EdD programs in educational studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is also editor of the Christian Education Journal.
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Infants and Children in the Church:
An Orthodox View
The question of the relationship between God and infants is fundamentally an inquiry into the nature, condition, and purpose of human existence in its purest and most primal form. Life's celebratory and critical situations relating to young ones engender the deepest feelings of joy and sorrow. All Christian pastors are called to participate in these life events and to provide a response to the matter of how God relates to humanity's youngest. This work will seek to demonstrate how the Orthodox Christian Church answers the following questions pertaining to infants and children:
1. How are infants and children impacted by sin?
2. When and how are children considered members of the church?
3. How does God treat people who die in infancy or childhood?
4. When and how are children instructed in Christian doctrine?
The Orthodox response to these queries is realized first and foremost within the liturgical praxis of the church — lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). Therefore, the method employed in presenting answers will be a systematic summary of the rites that compose the mystery of baptism. The sacramental journey of an infant from the first day of his life to his union with Christ in baptism provides not only a theoretical but also a pastoral context by which to engage the theological topics presented. This chapter will also look to the early church fathers and leading contemporary scholars to shed light on the traditional understandings of the theological themes encountered and considered. The inclusion of the Orthodox treatment of these questions provides an ancient Eastern Christian response that is unique for the following reasons: the Reformation and the theological debate that birthed varying confessions took place in the West, not the East; the advent of a formulated doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement set forth by Anselm of Canterbury took place after the Great Schism; and many of St. Augustine of Hippo's writings were inaccessible in the East until the fourteenth century. Therefore, the Orthodox position is another tradition that offers an ancient, Christian point of view.
Question 1: How Are Infants Impacted by Sin?
On the day an Orthodox Christian woman gives birth to a child, the priest makes a pastoral visit to offer up prayers for her and the newborn. After the completion of the Trisagion, the pastor says the following set of petitions:
O Sovereign Master and Lord Almighty, Who heals every sickness and every weakness: do You Yourself heal this Your servant/handmaiden (Name) who this day has borne a child, and raise her up from the bed on which she lies. For according to the words of Your Prophet David, in sin were we conceived and all are defiled before you; protect her, and this child which she has borne; shelter her under the covering of your wings from this day to her last; through the intercession of the all pure Theotokos and of all the Saints, for blessed are You to ages of Ages. Amen.
Sovereign Master and Lord our God, Who was born of our all pure Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, Who as a Babe was laid in a manger, and as a Child was held up to be seen, do You Yourself have mercy on this Your servant (Name) who this day has borne this child, and be gracious unto her voluntary and involuntary offenses, protecting her from every diabolical cruelty; preserve the child she has borne from every bane, from every harm, from every hostile rage, from evil spirits of the day and night ... and of the infant which has been born of her do You account worthy to worship in the earthly Temple which You have prepared for the glorification of Your Holy Name ...
O Lord our God, Who was well pleased to come down from the Heavens, and to be born of the holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary for the salvation of us sinners, Who knows the frailty of human nature: according to the multitude of Your compassions forgive the sins of Your servant (Name), who this day has borne a child ... and be gracious to Your Servant (Name) and to all the house in which the child has been born ... Amen.
The priest concludes the first-day prayers with the Apolysis: "Glory to You, O Christ our God and our Hope, glory to You. May Christ our true God, Who was born in a cave and laid in a manger for our salvation ..."
The Orthodox Church's teaching on how infants are impacted by sin is witnessed in these first-day prayers for the mother and child. The reference to Psalm 51:5 (50:7 in the Septuagint) speaks to the condition of the mother: "For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, And in sins my mother bore me," resulting in defilement. However, this language is not used in this liturgical context to describe the theological and anthropological condition of the infant. Instead, the prayers call on God to protect the baby from his first breath to his last, to count the child worthy to enter and worship in the earthly temple, and to grant grace to the household to which the child was born. Lastly, the faithful gathered for this occasion are reminded throughout the petitions that Christ assumed humanity and "lay in a manger for our salvation." Thus, he ontologically and soteriologically identifies with the frailty of the human state of the mother and child by becoming flesh, and there is a way of salvation. However, the silence pertaining to the sins of the little one that has just come from the womb speaks to the personal culpability of the infant.
The spiritual condition of a child, in its archetypical form, is witnessed in the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1–3. There is a symphony of theological interpretations among the church fathers pertaining to the creation account recorded in the first book of the Bible. In light of the proposed subject matter, St. Irenaeus's (c. 130–202) account in Against Heresies 3.22.4–5 and 4.38.1–2, whether literal or metaphorical, seems of particular relevance. According to the second-century bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, when the Creator fashioned man and woman and placed them in the garden, he did so in order that the sole creation endowed with the divine image would grow from infancy to perfection, i.e. deification. Thus, for the Bishop, perfected adulthood is not the starting point of humanity in the Genesis account. This potential was not realized in Adam.
When the serpent tempted Eve in the garden (Gen 2:16–17), the evil one contradicted God's Word. He promised her that if she broke the divinely commanded fast and ate of the forbidden tree she would not die, as God had foretold. Instead, she and Adam "would become like gods, knowing good and evil." As spiritual infants, endowed with free will, Eve and Adam believed the lie and sought deification through disobedience. Their actions resulted in broken communion with the Creator, the source of all life. Consequently, according to St. Ephrem the Syrian in his Commentary of Genesis 2.35.1, they were removed from the garden so as not to eat of the tree of life and remain in this state forever, became subject to mortality, and, in turn, developed a propensity toward sin. They, along with all creation, suffered. The divine image is now scarred but remains, as well as humanity's potential for union and communion with God — the potential to move from infancy to adulthood in Christ, the Second Adam.
The world, received by every person, is a world inherited from Adam and his descendants. This includes the consequences of the collective sin of all humanity throughout the ages. Andrew Louth describes the Eastern conviction on this anthropological reality:
The Greek Fathers speak in this connexion of 'ancestral sin,' propaterikon amartema, sin of our forefathers, inherited sin. We are born into a ruined cosmos, ruined at a moral, rather than a physical level (though there are areas — disease for instance — where it is difficult to draw a line); we add our bit to the devastation, but most of it was already laid waste long before we came along. The story of Adam speaks of the very beginning of this process, but just as we are implicated in a sin that is bigger than we are, so, too, Adam has unleashed consequences of sin that are more than he could be regarded as personally responsible for.
Louth's reflection sees Adam as the "genesis" of the human spiritual condition; however, each individual, through the exercise of personal free will, also hears the Word of God walking in the garden, asking, "Why are you hiding?" Every child is born into a fallen creation that all his or her ancestors, not just Adam and Eve, by their own volition helped to create. In the womb, each baby thus realizes the cumulative effect of gluttony, lust, covetousness, anger, sadness, despondency, vainglory, and pride. This notion of anthropology is less historical and individualistic; it is not centered on Adam. Rather, it is a timeless narrative that brings all of humanity into the story, into the garden. Thus, as humans, infants inherit the fallen condition as victims and not as perpetrators. They are not active causes as they are incapable of participating in the further dissemination of the ancestral sin. Their human stories have yet to be written; but, as infants of the church, their stories begin in the rites associated with and in the mystery of baptism.
Question 2: When and How Are Children Considered Members of the Church?
In the Orthodox Church, membership is realized when one is united to Christ in baptism, regardless of age. In the normal practice of the church, infants are baptized on or soon after the fortieth day following their births. However, prior to this event, two other rites are performed that are ritually connected to baptism.
Naming the Child — A New Identity
On the eighth day after birth, the priest once again visits the mother and child and offers the "naming prayers" following the example set forth in the Gospel of Luke when Christ was taken to the temple to be circumcised and named on the eighth day. After making the sign of the cross on the forehead, lips, and chest of the infant, the pastor prays:
O Lord our God, we entreat You, and we supplicate You, that the light of Your countenance be signed on this, Your servant (handmaiden), [Name], and that the Cross of Your Only-begotten Son be signed in his (her) heart and understanding, so that he (she) may flee from the vanity of the world and from every evil snare of the enemy, and may follow after Your commandments. And grant, O Lord, that Your holy name may remain unrejected by him (her), and that, in due time, he (she) may be joined to Your Holy Church, and that he (she) may be perfected by the dread Mysteries of Your Christ, so that, having lived according to Your commandments, and having preserved the seal unbroken, he (she) may receive the blessedness of the elect in Your kingdom: By the grace and love for mankind of Your Only-begotten Son, with Whom You are blessed, together with Your Most-holy, Good and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The new infant receives his Christian name as a sign of his new identity in the faith community. Although the child is not considered a member of the church, the prayers offered by the priest communicate the expectation of responsibility and anticipate soteriological advancement. Moreover, the notion of being signed with the cross identifies the infant with Christ and his sufferings. It is through the path of spiritual struggle, discipline, and daily dying that he is to appropriate the redemptive works of the Crucified One, to partake of his life-giving body and blood, and to progress toward his true human potential, Christlikeness.
Churching of the Child — Entering the Temple
On the fortieth day, the infant child participates in the rite of churching; at that point he is considered a peripheral member. This practice follows the ancient Jewish tradition established in Leviticus 12. It is believed Jesus sanctified the event by his own identification with it as recorded by St. Luke in his Gospel (2:22–40). On this day, Joseph and Mary took the Christ child back to the temple to be "presented to the Lord." The Orthodox rite takes place in the vestibule (a location corresponding to the outer court or Court of the Gentiles in the temple); there the priest meets the mother, sponsor(s), and the child. After the pastor makes the sign of the cross over the mother and infant, he recites the following after his prayer for the mother:
And bless this child which hath been born of her; increase him; sanctify him; enlighten him; give virtue unto him; and endow him with a good understanding. For thou hast brought him into being, and hast shown him the physical light and has appointed him to be vouchsafed the spiritual light in due time, and that he may be numbered among Thy chosen flock, through the Only-begotten Son, with whom Thou are blessed, together with Thine all-holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit; now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.
When the petition ends, the priest carries the child into the nave, while reciting Psalm 5:7 (5:8 in the Septuagint): "In the fullness of Your mercy I will come into Your house; In fear of You I will worship toward Your Holy temple." If the infant is male, the priest carries him through the holy doors and around the altar. If the child is female, the priest stands with her before the holy doors only. In either case, the pastor holds the child and recites the words of St. Simeon as recorded in Luke 2:29–32: "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel." At the conclusion of the churching, the child is returned to the mother.
Thus far, in the infant's spiritual journey toward baptism from the first to the fortieth day of his life, the church — the body of Christ — has prayed for his protection and for the blessing to enter and worship in God's temple; and the infant has been sealed with the sign of the cross. The church has also prayed for the child's obedience and faithfulness to Christ throughout his life, for his illumination and entrance into Christ's holy church, and for his reception of life-giving Holy Communion. Therefore, while the infant is neither sacramentally united to Christ nor considered a formal member of the church, he is under the watchful care of God and his people. The conclusion of this membership process is the mystery of baptism.
The Mystery of Baptism — Church Membership: Reception into the Catechumenate
As the infant is carried to the narthex of the church for baptism, he is first received in the catechumenate (the period during which one begins to become a disciple of Christ and enter his holy Church). The priest comes out of the sanctuary and lays his hand on the baby. This ritual action signifies that from that time forth the child belongs to God (Matt 13:30). During his entrance, the child, along with the sponsor(s), participates in the rite of exorcism. In this portion of the service, the priest commands all evil influences, realized or potential, to flee from the child. Then the sponsor — speaking for the infant — confesses he has renounced the Devil, united himself to Christ, and believes in him as King and God. Next, the godparents recite the symbol of faith, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. These actions represent that the initial declaration of the death of the old man and the reception of the new in the resurrected Christ has begun. After it the sponsor(s) bow low with the child in worship before the Holy Trinity. Thus, the godparents, throughout the exorcisms, are articulating the faith of the little one.
In Of the Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, Father Alexander Schmemann discusses whether there is a need for stated personal faith in the rite of baptism. He argues, "The sacrament then is precisely this: the decisive encounter of faith and the Divine response to it, the fulfillment of the one by the other." Anticipating the question of why infants would be baptized who have neither a personal faith nor a desire to be baptized, Schmemann explains that this question could be asked at every baptism: "If what we have said about faith and desire were understood as implying that the reality and the efficacy of Baptism depends on personal faith, is contingent upon the conscious desire of the individual, then the 'validity' of each Baptism, be it infant or adult, should be questioned. For to whom is it given to measure faith, to pass judgment on the degree of 'comprehension' and 'desire' in it?"
Excerpted from "Infants and Children in the Church"
Copyright © 2017 Adam Harwood and Kevin E. Lawson.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Academic.
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Table of Contents
Introduction — Kevin E. Lawson,
An Orthodox View — Jason Foster,
A Roman Catholic View — David Liberto,
A Lutheran View — David P. Scaer,
A Reformed View — Gregg Strawbridge,
A Baptist View — Adam Harwood,
Welcoming Children — Kevin E. Lawson,