In a recent discussion, I was told that the baptism of infants in a case of the likelihood of imminent death by a layman was not a matter of necessity for the infant to be baptised but a reassurance for the conscience of the parents. The reason put forward was that it was ridiculous to think that God would punish a child because it wasn’t baptised in time before its death, so emergency baptism is not a necessity but can only be a relief of the conscience. This apparently is a pervading view in some theological circles.
The above reasoning is somewhat troubling. There are a couple of issues that are problematic. One is that this view does not reflect a view found in prominent Fathers; it seems rather to be an opinion that reflects the thinking of Protestants and perhaps Roman Catholics. Another is the theology that underlines the reasoning and the implications of what baptism is and does.
There is not place here to survey a range of Fathers regarding this matter but the statements of St John Chrysostom will be considered as a good representative of patristic thought, especially regarding Scriptural exegesis.
The key Scriptural basis for the necessity of baptism is John 3:3-5. ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen amen, I say to you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born, being old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Amen amen, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”‘ The Lord seems to want to make it clear that being born again of water, baptism, and Spirit, is a must to enter the kingdom of God. That is baptism is necessary.
How does Chrysostom deal with this text? Here is a quote from his homily on John 3:3: ‘What He [Jesus] declares is this: “Thou sayest that it is impossible, I say that it is so absolutely possible as to be necessary, and that it is not even possible otherwise to be saved.”’ Here Chrysostom makes clear that Christ was intending by his comment that baptism is necessary. He also ties it in with salvation in case one would argue that entering the kingdom is perhaps different from salvation. Let us look at another quote: ‘That the need of water is absolute and indispensable, you may learn in this way. On one occasion, when the Spirit had flown down before the water was applied, the Apostle did not stay at this point, but, as though the water were necessary and not superfluous, observe what he says; “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”’ Again, Chrysostom is clear on the necessity of water and so baptism. A third quote to confirm Chrysostom’s view: ‘We risk no common danger; for if it should come to pass, (which God forbid!) that through the sudden arrival of death we depart hence uninitiated, though we have ten thousand virtues, our portion will be no other than hell, and the venomous worm, and fire unquenchable, and bonds indissoluble.’ Here it seems to counter an argument that baptism is necessary for us to enter the kingdom while on earth but one may nevertheless enter the kingdom on judgement day, because Chrysostom speaks of portion of the uninitiated as hell and bonds indissoluble, that is not a only a temporary time in hell but an eternity in hell. This quote also counters those that may think that the last resurrection of the body achieves the same thing as baptism because in that case dying without baptism now would only have temporary consequences until the resurrection. Note also that even ten thousand, or innumerable virtues, does not permit salvation. From his exegesis on this text, Chrysostom is clearly of the opinion that baptism is necessary for salvation and status as a exegete is such that this is likely to be the standard understanding of the matter within orthodox tradition. So, far this is largely a proof text approach to the question, so we should turn to the theology underlining the matter.
Regarding the theology of baptism, Chrysostom’s homily provides a wealth of information. Beginning with the quote noted above regarding virtue, it seems that we must not consider baptism in the same manner as virtue. Chrysostom when speaking of ten thousand virtues is not counting virtues but stating that even if we are perfect in virtue yet die without baptism then our portion is hell. This means that baptism is not something for which we are judged with other virtues or sins on judgement day but is rather better understood as an ontological state that in itself determines our possible salvation independent of our sins or virtues. We could say that baptism brings us into a state where we are able to be forgiven our sins in the future as well as cleansing us from past sins. Sinners, virtuous and innocent persons alike require baptism. We should not say that person x was innocent or virtuous and so should be in heaven regardless of his baptism state. The view that one perishes because one inherits guilt from Adam is also inconsistent with Chrysostom. It places baptism into an way of thinking that our salvation is only about individual sin and virtue because one who is not baptised is punished for his individual, personal guilt inherited from Adam, that is for a sin.
If baptism is independent of the judgement of sin and virtue then what is it? Let us turn to Chrysostom again:
‘The earthly birth which is according to the flesh, is of the dust, and therefore heaven is walled against it, for what hath earth in common with heaven? But that other, which is of the Spirit, easily unfolds to us the arches above. Hear, ye as many as are unilluminated, shudder, groan, fearful is the threat, fearful the sentence. “It is not (possible),” He saith, “for one not born of water and the Spirit, to enter into the Kingdom of heaven”; because he wears the raiment of death, of cursing, of perdition, he hath not yet received his Lord’s token, he is a stranger and an alien, he hath not the royal watchword.’
Here we see the reason that one requires baptism: It is because our birth according to the flesh is walled off from heaven, that is the material world, since the fall, is in a state of separation and alienation from God. What connection does one in the state of death have with Life? This state applies to all those born, it is an ontological condition that is independent of our free choice, virtue and sin. Baptism is necessary to leave this state and to bring man back into a common life with God.
Here is another quote to consider:
For as long as we are divided in this respect, though a man be father, or son, or brother, or aught else, he is no true kinsman, as being cut off from that relationship which is from above. What advantageth it to be bound by the ties of earthly family, if we are not joined by those of the spiritual? what profits nearness of kin on earth, if we are to be strangers in heaven? For the Catechumen is a stranger to the Faithful. He hath not the same Head, he hath not the same Father, he hath not the same City, nor Food, nor Raiment, nor Table, nor House, but all are different; all are on earth to the former, to the latter all are in heaven.
This quote is interesting because it shows that being human is not only an individual experience but one that is also communal and related, one of family. Thus, our salvation depends not only on our individual state of virtue but also on our relationship with the family of God. If we are a stranger to this family then we cannot share the benefits of this family regardless of our individual abilities, such someone not a member of the royal family cannot expect to inherit the royal throne because they are not a member of the royal family and not because of any other disability. Family relationship is part of what it is to be human; it is a means of intimate union but also of separation. To join the heavenly family is not something that is of a mental attribute of sharing a common faith as Protestants effectively believe with ‘faith alone’ because catechumens also share this faith yet they are still considered strangers before their baptism. It is not simply about receiving the Spirit else St Peter would not have mentioned water also. Joining the family is something that requires both a created, the need of water, and an uncreated aspect, the work of the Spirit, because it is a family that is both united to the uncreated God and to other created members. Without a created aspect there can be no union in and of the created nature and without the uncreated there could be no union with the uncreated, God. This union is in Christ who as God-man has perfected the union of God and man and thus enabled our salvation in union with Him.
So, this is the logic that supports the contention that an emergency baptism is not merely something to rest the conscience of the parents but is a necessity for the salvation of the child, who is born in the state of death and alienation from God. This is not the child’s fault but it is a fact of the human condition after the Fall, which it shares. Our lives are not merely the product of our own choices but also those of whom we are dependent; this is what it is to be human. Human existence is of unique persons within community; we cannot divorce the two aspects, although we can distinguish them so that it is true that a son is not judged for the sins of his father but also that the consequences of one’s sin may affect a number of following generations.