Updated: Aug 19
The Catholic Church recognizes St. Gregory Nazianzen, also called the Theologian, as a Doctor of the Church and one of the 3 Cappadocian Fathers. He was a 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople who became well known for his theological orations on the nature of the Holy Trinity and other Church teachings. The Catholic Church continues to benefit from his works, which are a goldmine of theological and rhetorical masterpieces.
In his 40th Oration, also called his "Oration on Holy Baptism," he lays down the Catholic doctrine regarding the Sacrament of Baptism. In this article, I will demonstrate that St. Gregory Nazianzen did not deny Catholic teaching on the necessity for babies to be baptized.
It recently came to my attention that some Protestants will attempt to cite a certain passage from his work in an attempt to discredit the ancient practice of infant baptism. They will sometimes quote this highly authoritative Greek Father as if he rejected Catholic teaching on baptism by citing this passage below.
"But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more, or less, when they may be able to listen and answer something about the Sacrament; that even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration" (Oration 40, Ch. XXVIII, emphasis added).
What he appears to be stating is that infants should wait a few years until they understand the Sacrament before receiving it. This seems to be teaching the Baptist doctrine of "Believer's Baptism," which is the belief that only those who have made a voluntary confession that Jesus is Lord at the age of reason can receive baptism. Those who deny infant baptism believe that if one receives baptism as an infant, then it is absolutely invalid. Most infant baptism deniers also believe baptism does not truly wash away a man's sins.
What I find interesting is that a 16th Century group of Protestants called Anabaptists made the same objection. Like modern day Baptists, they believed one could only receive it after willingly repenting of their sins at the age of reason. They also only considered it to be a symbol of outward faith. In fact, St. Robert Bellarmine, a former Cardinal and Jesuit who lived in the 16th and early 17th Century, spent many years studying Protestant works and controversial theology. He wrote works refuting all kinds of Protestant objections to various articles of the Catholic faith, including those that pertain to the Sacrament of baptism. Like Nazianzen, the Church hails him as a Doctor of the Church for his written contributions to Catholic theology. In one chapter in his book, On Baptism, he refutes over 30 objections to infant baptism from Anabaptists, including one that cites the previous passage from Nazianzen. Here is what he has to say to this objection.
"I respond: Nazianzen wanted Baptism to be delayed until the third year for children to be able to respond in some way; nevertheless, he made an exception for the danger of death. He would have it, that if a danger were seen, they could be baptized at any time, and he proves it from Circumcision and other arguments...Certainly, three-year-old children do not yet have the use of reason, nor can believe, nor do penance, nor furnish the other things which the Anabaptists want" (On Baptism, Book I, Chapter IX, emphasis added).
Consider what St. Robert Bellarmine says here. Firstly, he states that Nazianzen believed one can be baptized at any time because of an exception at the danger of death, which means infants can validly receive the Sacrament despite not making a voluntary confession of faith. Secondly, he emphasizes an interesting point about the sign of the Old Covenant, namely circumcision, being applied to male infants before the coming of Christ. In the Old Covenant, the Jews circumcised all male infants on the 8th day. However, we learn from certain parts of Scripture, such as the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, that according to a declaration from St. Peter, the Pope at the time, that Gentile converts do not need to adhere to circumcision or other aspects of the Mosaic Law to be saved.
Perhaps, it is possible that the very citation from the Oration on Holy Baptism that St. Robert Bellarmine alludes to is the following:
"Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism: what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated. A proof of this is found in the Circumcision on the eighth day, which was a sort of typical seal, and was conferred on children before they had the use of reason" (Oration 40, Chapter XXVIII, emphasis added).
This is a powerful passage for two reasons. Firstly, St. Gregory Nazianzen understood that baptism as the new and greater circumcision. In the Old Covenant, all male Jews were circumcised on the 8th day. However, salvation is open to all people, both Gentile and Jew, and thus, baptism is also open to all who come into Christ's Church, that is the Catholic Church. In fact, St. Paul's epistle to the Colossians teaches this truth and makes an important connection between circumcision and baptism:
"In him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:11-12, NIV, emphasis added).
The passage clearly identifies baptism as the new and greater circumcision. It also teaches that one arrives at a new supernatural life in Christ by baptism as well. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, then that means infants must also be baptized just as male infants were circumcised in the Old Testament, or else the practice is not more universal than that of the Old Covenant. Thus, St. Gregory more than likely thought of this verse or similar ones when compiling his orations.
Now, the second reason the previous citation of Nazianzen's 40th Oration is crucial is that he clarifies that it is safer to baptize infants than to let them die unbaptized. Nazianzen only states this because of his belief that baptism is somehow connected to one's salvation. Recall that St. Robert Bellarmine also mentioned that Nazianzen made an exception for the danger of death as well.
In order to understand the biblical basis for Nazianzen's teachings, it is important to note that many passages from Scripture such as the following teach the necessity for every human creature to receive baptism and that baptism definitely washes away sins.
"Jesus answered, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit'" (John 3:5, NIV).
“A man named Ananias came to see me [Paul]... He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: ‘... Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:12-16, NIV).
In the first verse, Jesus teaches that no one can enter into heaven without rebirth of water and Spirit to Nicodemus when asked how one is born again. The reference to water is obviously a reference to water baptism. The second passage indicates that when St. Paul received baptism, that it washed away his sins. This is why that St. Gregory Nazianzen in Chapter VI of his Oration on Holy Baptism calls baptism the "purification of the sins of each individual, and a complete cleansing from all the bruises and stains of sin."
It is a fact that there is an overwhelming consensus that the Greek and Latin Fathers taught baptismal regeneration, including Nazianzen himself. Thus, he is consistent with the Catholic Church's teaching that baptism is required for salvation. If he agreed with the Anabaptists on the matter, he would not have stated the salvific effect of baptism and that infants who die without baptism "depart unsealed and uninitiated." This is proven by the fact he connects one's fate after death to whether or not he received the Sacrament, which means baptism has an effect on our salvation. His recognition of the validity of infant baptism intrinsically ties into the fact he accepted the Catholic belief that baptism washes away sin and that Christ did not restrict it to any age group. In other words, if baptism did not wash away sin, then he would have had a basis to reject infant baptism altogether.
In fact, in the same exact chapter the Protestants cite from, St. Gregory Nazianzen also emphasizes the necessity for infant baptism by stating the following.
"And so in those who fail to receive the gift [of baptism]...perhaps on account of infancy, or some perfectly involuntary circumstance through which they are prevented from receiving it, even if they wish, will neither be glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge" (Oration 40, Chapter XXVIII, emphasis added).
This passage also demonstrates that St. Gregory Nazianzen contradicts the Anabaptists and Baptists because the first clause implies once again that infants should be baptized. Secondly, St. Gregory Nazianzen once again states that those infants who depart without baptism cannot be glorified, but not punished either. (Note, this passage also helps establish the controversial teaching on the Limbo of the Infants, which will be discussed in a later article.) It reaffirms every other statement cited here. Thus, we can logically conclude that St. Gregory emphasizes the importance that everyone be baptized, lest it affect their salvation. If one states that someone who leaves this life without baptism is unable to obtain salvation, then this inevitably leads to Catholic teaching on baptismal regeneration, period! Finally, we can conclude that since baptismal regeneration is true, there is no reason to withhold it from infants!
We have seen the teaching of St. Gregory the Theologian and his rhetorical skills in his Oration on Holy Baptism. While Anabaptists and Baptists reject baptismal regeneration and infant baptism, St. Gregory Nazianzen, demonstrates his approval for both, thus supporting the Catholic Church on this matter.
St. Gregory Nazianzen, ora pro nobis!