History of infant communion, part 1: Early church (30-500 AD)

Today I will explore the historical evidence of infant communion from the early church. That the early church initiated infants is not a matter of scholarly debate; I spend a good deal of time on it mostly because many people are very surprised by these facts (and also because I find them intrinsically interesting). Monday I gave my summary introduction to the series (“5 quick pastoral reasons why we should restore infant communion”) and yesterday I clarified the pastoral context of my proposal (“Baptismal anniversaries and sacramental formation, an interlude”).


To say that the Western church initiated infants from at least the late second century until the late middle ages does not guarantee that this is the only way it should be done. That’s not how liturgical history works: older is not always better, and “recent” (late medieval! gasp!) does not mean inauthentic. What history does is give us a perspective on the discipline of initiation that encourages us to think about the benefits and risks of infant communion and infant exclusion. (A “discipline,” here used as a technical term, refers to a practice that is subject to change, because it depends on historical realities that shift from generation to generation, rather than being directly dependent on revelation itself. The understanding that Christ is Savior and Lord does not change, and is thus not a discipline, but the hymns by which we acclaim him Lord and Savior have changed over time.)

This is a 12th-century image of a grown Paul being baptized as if he was an infant, in a small font (Baptism of Paul, Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily).
I love this 12th-century image of a grown Paul being baptized as if he was an infant (Baptism of Paul, Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily). Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

In this case, as I will argue in later posts, I think there is a similarity between the needs of Christians in the contemporary period and in the early church that makes the early church structures ripe for retrieval. But this does not automatically follow from the history, and I would expect that many people who know the history would not think that we should retrieve that history. The history shows that change is possible, but not necessarily that it is advisable.


The short version is, Christians initiated infants by at least the late 2nd century (180s), and until the late Middle Ages (after 1000, but probably more like 1200), all newly baptized Christians were communed, regardless of age. Infant communion was lost because lay communion was lost, but when lay communion was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, infant communion was not restored with it. In this first post, I’ll be focusing on the evidence for infant communion and the early church context. Tomorrow’s post will explain how infant communion was lost.


New Testament period (30-110 AD)


Because the earliest Christian liturgical practices were locally determined, they varied substantially from place to place. There has been an enormous debate, mostly (not coincidentally) since the Enlightenment, on whether the New Testament and other pre-Nicene (i.e. before 325 CE) evidence points to a general practice of baptizing infants and young children when their parents converted to Christianity or not. The Enlightenment understanding of religion consisted of cognitive assent to basic truths about God, and it was obvious to all that infants can’t understand, let alone assent to, specific truths about God. So early historical scholars of the Bible (mostly Protestant) presumed that the silence of the New Testament on whether infants were baptized along with their converting families meant that there were no infants or they were not baptized (in the “household baptisms” in Acts 10:24-48; 16:15, 33; and 1 Corinthians 1:16). This Enlightenment viewpoint, and the argument against infant baptism (New Testament and today) that it entails, still exists today.


Oscar Cullman and Joachim Jeremias, working in the 1950s and 60s, challenged this assumption among non-Catholic Biblical scholars and theologians, arguing that given the Biblical worldview on the “assembly of Israel” and participation in the covenant, it would have seemed natural to the New Testament writers that children would be initiated together with their families. But of course, we do not know for sure, since no infant baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament and refraining from baptizing infants is never discussed.


What we do know is that the baptized participated in the breaking of the bread, and unbaptized were in some places excluded from worship altogether. Since I imagine the alternative would have been making provision to exclude infants from the gathering (and on the basis of other indirect evidence about the New Testament understanding of infancy), and we have no evidence of such provisions, I expect that in some cases, at least, infants were initiated and admitted to the table. At this early period, although there is clear reverence for the Eucharist and language about it being the Body and Blood of Christ, there was no disciplinary tradition that, for example, separated communion from a full meal or dictated that it was irreverent to receive it with other food or to spill or spit it up. In short, we have issues with infant communion they did not have. (And we will have to address these – I’m not suggesting we return to either the diversity or the specifics of New Testament practice.)


The whole argument about whether infants were baptized is fascinating (at least to those, like me, who find such things fascinating!), but for my purpose here, it is enough to point out that in the New Testament period (as for centuries afterwards), every baptized Christian, regardless of age, was immediately communed. How long does this last, and why does it change? These are the main questions motivating this history.


Early church (110-500 AD)


The first direct evidence we have of infant baptism (and communion) is not at all controversial, thankfully: everyone recognizes that the first evidence Tertullian’s 198-200 CE treatise On Baptism. On the other hand, it might be surprising that our first direct evidence is strongly against infant baptism. Tertullian’s severe moral theology and the excruciating process of penance after serious sin in the late 2nd century led him to pastorally counsel parents not to have their children baptized until after they have grown up and become morally reliable – which, he argues, happens after marriage (or after they are “firmly established in continence”)! In other words, don’t baptize (and commune) children until they’re done with their teen rebellion. With the development of stronger processes for handling post-baptismal sin, this argument waned.


For more on Tertullian’s position, and a great deal more about infant baptism, from which I am about to depart, see “Initiating Infants,” which is chapter 3 of my book Efficacious Engagement; Maxwell Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, which is a masterful history of initiation; or Mark Searle’s essay, “Infant Baptism Reconsidered,” collected in Max’s Living Water, Sealing Spirit.


From Tertullian onwards we see the coexistence of infant and adult full initiation in the early church, both using the same set of rites including post-baptismal anointings and communion. No one in the early church was especially bothered by this; in fact, both St Cyprian of Carthage and St Augustine of Hippo argued that infants were the ideal recipients of the sacraments, and encouraged other Christians to become more like infants in order to receive the sacraments more worthily. Such an interpretation is plausible, given Matthew 18:3-5: “He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (also see the better known story in the following chapter, and parallels in Mark and Luke). Cyprian and Augustine didn’t exist in a post-Enlightenment mindset that assumed that faith in God was mostly a cognitive and mature phenomenon. Nor were there life cycle structures for catechizing Christians in this early period – if we continue to do this, and I think it’s a good idea, we will be doing something new.

Here's a 5th century mosaic (from Sant'Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna) showing the sophisticated Eucharistic thought and expression of the early church. The image is of Abraham and Melchisedek, and it echoes the Roman Canon. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Here’s a 5th century mosaic (from Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna) showing the sophisticated Eucharistic thought and expression of the early church. The image is of Abraham and Melchisedek, and it echoes the Roman Canon. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr.

Tomorrow’s post will explore the loss of lay communion in the middle ages and the effects of the modern Liturgical Movement.







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