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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:

  • "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."
Let us consider Origen's illustration carefully.

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:

  • "... 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.
Yet James Taylor, in 1930, says this as to Moses:
  • "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.
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.

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.

1 "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.
3 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.

Stephen Hesterman

Origen of Alexandria's Influence on the Teaching and Practice of Baptism