Baptism — Origen of Alexandria's Influence
March 17, 2014
In Colossians 2:12, the apostle Paul writes that the Colossian saints had been "buried with him (Jesus) in baptism, in
which ye have been also raised with him through faith of the working of God who raised him from among the dead." So
baptism, properly understood, is the Christian's identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A couple of generations later, after Jesus' apostles had departed to be with Christ, a prolific writer and teacher, by
name Origen, arose in Alexandria, Egypt. Origen, who was born around 185 AD and died in 254 AD, taught that
Pharaoh's daughter finding Moses as an infant in the marsh (Exodus chapter 2, verses 1-10), illustrates the Church coming
to the "waters of baptism"1.
The teachings and commentaries2 of Origen and subsequent authors have been used in some Christian circles to
support the practice of baptizing infants who are born in Christian households. For instance, in an article entitled
The Baptism of Baby Moses: An Old Testament Type of
Infant Baptism, we read the following:
Let us consider Origen's illustration carefully.
- "All in all, the graces an infant receives at baptism are truly remarkable, as are the parallels between the Old
Testament story of baby Moses and the New Testament sacrament of infant baptism. So the next time a Fundamentalist
friend asks where you find infant baptism in the Bible, show them a story they have probably never thought of. The
story of how placing a baby in the water once saved him and a nation, the story of baby Moses, the story of an Old
Testament type of infant baptism."
In Exodus 2, Moses' mother placed him in an ark, which she laid in the sedge (marsh plants) on the bank of the
river. Pharaoh's daughter (a pagan woman) saw the ark in the midst of the sedge, and sent her handmaiden and fetched
it. She opened the top and saw the weeping child, naming him Moses "because I drew him out of the water".
Years later, Moses "refused to be called son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer afflication along with the
people of God than to have the temporary pleasure of sin; ... ." (Hebrews 11:24-25). The fact that a pagan,
Egyptian woman—with whom Moses later refused a filial relationship—drew him out of the water shows that we
cannot view this incident as an illustration of Christian baptism. How foreign is this woman's act—however
providential it was in the ways of God to preserve Moses' life—from the truth of Colossians 2:12: "in which ye
have been also raised with [Jesus] through faith of the working of God who raised [Jesus] from among the dead."
I believe that John Darby3 and Charles Coates rightly interpret this incident about Moses in Exodus 2:
Yet James Taylor, in 1930, says this as to Moses:
- "... the providential superintendence of God answering the faith of the parents of the infant Moses, and thus
accomplishing the counsels of His grace, which not only preserved the child's life, but placed him in an elevated position
in the court of Pharaoh. ... Moses' faith is seen in his giving up, when grown to age, all the advantages of the
position in which God had set him by His providence." See Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, by J. N. Darby,
volume 1, page 51.
- "In connection with Pharaoh's daughter, we see how wonderfully God preserves providentially what is of Himself and for
His pleasure. Even as to the Lord Jesus, there was a providential preservation in His being taken into Egypt
(Matthew 2:13-15). Where there is faith, God comes in providentially so that what is of Himself may be
preserved. Otherwise soon there would not be a saint on earth. If Satan had been permitted to have his way he
would, by means of Herod, have killed Jesus as a little child, and he would not suffer a saint to live. But God
preserves providentially what is precious in His sight, so that it may be maintained here according to His will and for
His testimony, in spite of all the hostility of Satan and the world. And 'all things serve His might'; He could move
the heart of Pharaoh's daughter, and use her to defeat her father's plans, and still retain Moses under the care of his
parents." See An Outline of Exodus, by C. A. Coates, pages 6-7.
In fact, Moses' mother had not delivered her child to death. Rather, she had made an ark for Moses to preserve his life,
plastering it with resin and pitch and laying it "in the sedge on the bank of the river"; and Moses' "sister stood afar
off to see what would happen to him". Then Pharaoh's daughter saw the ark, opened it, and picked up the weeping
Moses, saying "I drew him out of the water". God used Pharaoh's daughter (a heathen woman) providentially to
preserve Moses' life, but Moses' later refusal to be called son of Pharaoh's daughter (Hebrews 11:24) should remind us to
guard our hearts and our thoughts by Christ Jesus (Phillipians 4:7) as we read the Holy Scriptures.
- "In type the mother of Moses delivered her child to death. This corresponds to what we do when we let a child
come under the waters of baptism, the type of the death of Christ." See Ministry by J. Taylor, New Series,
volume 75, page 109.
James Taylor's comment reflects the influence of Origen's imaginative teaching about this passage, which is current in
parts of Christendom and may have informed James Taylor's views as to including infants in the scope of household baptism.
"I think Pharao's daughter can be regarded as the Church which is gathered from the Gentiles. ... This
Church, therefore, coming from the Gentiles finds Moses in the marsh lying cast off by his own people and exposed, and
gives him out to be reared. ... The Church, therefore, coming to the waters of baptism, also took up the Law."
Homilies on Genesis and Exodus
, page 246, by Origen, published by The Catholic University of America Press.
2 Origen also taught that the church received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to children.
(He uses a term that could encompass both young children and infants). The distinction is important, because
young children can understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, confess with their mouths Jesus as Lord, and believe in their
hearts that God has raised Him from among the dead (Romans 10:9), whereas infants cannot do so. Here are four
English translations of Origen's statement, from Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox sources:
- "It is on this account as well that the church has received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to
little children." See Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, page 367, by Origen, published by The Catholic
University of America Press.
- "This is why the church received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to infants." See
Spirit & Fire, page 142, by Origen, published by The Catholic University of America Press.
- "For this reason the church received from the Apostles the tradition to administer baptism to the children also."
See Infant Baptism.
- "The church has received a tradition from the Apostles to give baptism even to little ones." See
Christian Worship and Liturgies.
J. N. Darby considered Origen's teachings unreliable; he writes thusly concerning him: "In poor,
wild, persecuted, but sincere Origen, we see confusion and unbridled imagination indeed; but, in spite of all, marks of
genuine living faith. But Origen furnishes us with little which throws direct light on the progress of church
opinion, though he may have largely influenced it. ... His spiritualizations are elaborate; and, with the
simplicity, have the foolishness, of a child." See Collected Writings of J. N. Darby
, volume 14, pages 50-51.
Origen of Alexandria's Influence on the Teaching and Practice of Baptism