The fathers, however, of the 4th century emphasized already the danger of deferring the rite until men fall into mortal sickness, when they may be unconscious or paralysed or otherwise unable to profess their faith and repentance, or to swallow the viaticum. Gregory Theologus therefore (c. 340) suggests the age of three years as suitable for baptism, because by then a child is old enough, if not to understand the questions put to him, at any rate to speak and make the necessary responses. Gregory sanctions the baptism of infants only where there is imminent danger of death. "It is better that they should be sanctified without their own sense of it than that they pass away unsealed and uninitiated." And he justifies his view by this, that circumcision, which foreshadowed the Christian seal (σφραγίς), was imposed on the eighth day on those who as yet had no use of reason. He also urges the analogue of "the anointing of the doorposts, which preserved the first-born by things that have no sense." On such grounds was justified the transition of a baptism which began as a spontaneous act of self-consecration into an opus operatum.
How long after this it was before infant baptism became normal inside the Byzantine church, we do not exactly know, but it was natural that mothers should insist on their children being liberated from Satan and safeguarded from demons as soon as might be. The change came more quickly in Latin than in Greek Christendom, and very slowly indeed in the Armenian and Georgian churches. Augustine's insistence on original sin, a doctrine never quite accepted in his sense in the East, hurried on the change.
7. Confirmation. - In the West, however, the sacrament has been saved from becoming merely magical by the rite of confirmation or of reception of the Spirit being separated from the baptism of regeneration and reserved for an adult age. The English church confirms at fifteen or sixteen; the Roman rather earlier. The catechetic course, which formerly preceded the complete rite, now intervenes between its two halves; and the sponsors who formerly attested the worthiness of the candidate and received him up as anadochi out of the font, have become god-parents, who take the baptismal vows vicariously for infants who cannot answer for themselves. In the East, on the contrary, the complete rite is read over the child, who is thus confirmed from the first. The Roman church already foreshadowed the change and gave a peculiar salience to confirmation as early as the 3rd century, when it decreed that persons already baptized by heretics, but reverting to the church should not be baptized over again, but only have hands laid on them. It was otherwise in Africa and the East. Here they insisted in such cases on a repetition of the entire rite, baptism and confirmation together.
The Cathars (q.v.) of the middle ages discarded water baptism altogether as being a Jewish rite, but retained the laying on of hands with the traditio precis as sufficient initiation. This they called the spiritual baptism, and interpreted Matt. xxviii. 19, as a command to practise it, and not water baptism.
8. Disciplina arcani. - The communication to the candidates of the Creed and Lord's Prayer was a solemn rite. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his instruction of the catechumens, urges them to learn the Creed by heart, but not write it down. On no account must they divulge it to unbaptized persons. The same rule already meets us in Clement of Alexandria before the year 200. In time this rule gave rise to what is called the Disciplina arcani. Following the fashion of the pagan mysteries in which men were only permitted to gaze upon the sacred objects after minute lustrations and scrupulous purifications, Christian teachers came to represent the Creed, Lord's Prayer and Lord's Supper as mysteries to be guarded in silence and never divulged either to the unbaptized or to the pagans. And yet Justin Martyr, Tertullian and other apologists of the 2nd century had found nothing to conceal from the eye and ear of pagan emperors and their ministers. In the 3rd century this love of mystification reached the pitch of hiding even the gospels from the unclean eyes of pagans.
Probably Mgr. Pierre Battifol is correct in supposing that the Disciplina arcani was more or less of a make-believe, a bit of belletristic trifling on the part of the over-rhetorical Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries. It is in them that the atmosphere of mystery attains a maximum of intensity. They clearly felt themselves called upon to out-trump the pagan Mystae. Yet it is inconceivable that men and women should spend years, even whole lives, as catechumens within the pale of the church, and really remain ignorant all the time of the Trinitarian Epiclesis used in baptism, of the Creed, and above all of the Lord's Prayer. Wherever the Disciplina arcani, i.e. the obligation to keep secret the formula of the threefold name, the creed based on it and the Lord's Prayer, was taken seriously, it was akin to the scruple which exists everywhere among primitive religionists against revealing to the profane the knowledge of a powerful name or magic formula. The name of a deity was often kept secret and not allowed to be written down, as among the Jews.
9. Regeneration. - The idea of regeneration seldom occurs in the New Testament, and perhaps not at all in connexion with baptism; for in the conversation with Nicodemus, John iii. 3-8, the words "of water and" in v. 5 offend the context, spiritual re-birth alone being insisted upon in vv. 3, 6, 7 and 8; moreover, Justin Martyr, who cites v. 5, seems to omit them. Nor is there any mention of water in ch. i. 13, where, according to the oldest text, Christ is represented as having been born or begotten not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
In 1 Pet. i. 3, it is said of the saints that God the Father begat them anew unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus, and in v. 23 that they have been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible through the word of God. But here again it is not clear that the writer has in view water baptism or any rite at all as the means and occasion of regeneration. In the conversation with Nicodemus we seem to overhear a protest against the growing tendency of the last years of the 1st century to substitute formal sacraments for the free afflatus of the spirit, and to "crib, cabin and confine" the gift of prophecy.